Profiles In Courage

First, a disclaimer: I’ve left the topic of police brutality alone for a long while, mainly because some readers, who are also dear friends, have loved ones or close friends in law enforcement, and they – not to put too fine a point on it – weren’t happy with me. If that’s you, I’m tempted to ask you to ignore this post. But I won’t do that, because if anyone needs to rethink the issue of police use of force, it’s the policing community. I know some of you are peace officers – good ones – and we both know that clubbing an unresponsive person isn’t a way to ensure or enhance officer safety. But there – I’m getting ahead of myself.

This morning I received a link to a stunningly disturbing piece from a local FOX affiliate in Oklahoma City. As anyone who follows reported cases of police misconduct knows, OHP has quite the reputation for misbehavior. As usual, we’re only aware of this incident because a video, taken by a private citizen, escaped the notice of these two highwaymen (who would no doubt have seized and deleted it given the opportunity) and wound up instead on the local news.

Here’s what we know: a car swerved off the road into a ditch. A bystander ran to check on the driver (probably because that’s what decent people do when they witness an accident). When he realized that the driver was unresponsive he called the police (probably because they’re traditionally thought to be of assistance in emergencies). 

Immediately upon their arrival, the responding officers shouted at the driver, who lay slumped over toward the passenger seat, to put his car in park. When the driver failed to respond, they broke out both front windows and shouted a little louder. But the driver still didn’t move, so one officer struck him repeatedly with his club (presumably to help him hear better). This also proving fruitless, these courageous specimens of the thin blue lines took the ultimate risk: they opened the car door, dragged out the driver, threw him face down on the ground and chained – excuse me – “secured” him. 

Respect.

Only then – after screaming, destroying property, beating the driver and slamming him to the ground – did they realize that he was having a medical emergency and call for an ambulance. 

The only thing about this situation that is worse than the behavior of these two is what OHP spokesman/CYA officer Captain Paul Timmons had to say. 

“Officer safety is paramount in a situation like that. It’s three o’clock in the morning and you’re dealing with a bunch of unknowns… You have to take control of the situation and make sure it’s done in a safe way for everyone involved. That includes the troopers, the driver and anybody on scene.”

Officer safety? Did you really say that, Captain Timmons?  I’m curious – did you know that when firefighters and emergency medical personnel walk up to an unresponsive person we are supposed to consider our safety as well? Should we be using clubs too, Captain? Just to be safe? EMTs and Paramedics encounter people like this every day. Many of them actually are high or drunk, unlike this poor gentleman. 

I’m sorry, friends, but this is why good police officers are in danger. This is the number one reason why law enforcement can’t get no respect. Not because there’s a war on cops; not because there are too many guns; but because this kind of cowardly, abusive behavior by egotistical bullies in uniform is not only tolerated, but unapologetically defended by the law enforcement community. We’re assured that these two officers did everything “by the book.” Well then. Fix the book. 

These officers are criminals – no, worse than criminals, because they assaulted, without provocation, a very sick man who they were called to help. It was an act of unmitigated violence against the very society they claim to protect and serve. 

Now please don’t misunderstand me – I can sympathize. They were certainly “dealing with a bunch of unknowns.” Policing is dangerous, though not nearly so dangerous as the scare artists from the Fraternal Order of Pansies would have us believe. It’s probably also frightening, especially at three in the morning. It’s reasonable to consider that not everyone who applies is ready to face this kind of fear. So while some might say that the law these bullies were hired to enforce ought to apply equally to them, I’m not advocating anything so extreme. I’m not even going to suggest a sunny afternoon in a pillory with “To Protect And Serve My Ego” on a placard hung around the neck. 

Surely, though, we can agree that there ought to be some consequences. After all, they did walk up to a medical emergency (a man experiencing a stroke, perhaps, or going into diabetic shock – who knows?), smash the windows and beat the patient. Not even an ordinary thug would do that. Even if we do treat them as if they’re above the law, can’t we just fire them? 

That’s not too much to ask, is it? 

It might not be an easy conversation, but surely the OHP has someone up the chain of command with the courage to fire these two. “Johnny, I know that being a police officer is something that you’ve always dreamed of. But you’re just not ready, Johnny. You can’t beat your brother with a stick just because he doesn’t move when you yell at him. Especially when he’s about to die and needs help. I know it feels like in the movies, but life isn’t a movie, Johnny. You’re not quite prepared to carry a gun on behalf of the taxpayers, son. You need to grow up a little first. Best of luck to you – we’ll see you in the Krispy Kreme drive-thru.”

I’m not holding my breath. But one must dream sometimes …

Jesus Who?

In this clip you’ll hear the name of “Jesus” used and abused freely by a number of charlatans as they anoint and pray over Donald Trump, the personification of pride, to be the next President of the United States. It might be helpful to take just a moment to clarify who they aren’t referring to.

This is not the Jesus who said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” No, this jesus has personal relationships with countries (a bit of nonsense even on a purely semantic level) – specifically the secular nation of Israel and the United States. You may be forgiven for struggling to discern the evidence for such a relationship in the behavior of these two nations. Different jesus.

This is not the Jesus who said, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” This jesus understands that in order to be strong and respected in the world, one must be ruthless in business and vicious in speech. This jesus sees the value in spite and trash-talk and understands that only a bimbo would ask a hostile question of the celebrities’ Anointed.

This is not the Jesus who said, “Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.” No, this jesus knows that the successful man’s first priority must be looking out for number one and that we have a responsibility to take care of ourselves before we try to help our neighbor.

Speaking of neighbors, this is not the Jesus who gave the starring role in His parable about loving our neighbor to a political and religious enemy of the people of God, a member of the most hated class of foreigners in His time and place. No, this jesus builds fences, calculates quotas, crunches financial estimates and asks for immigration papers before even thinking about referring the needy to the appropriate bureaucracy for eventual assistance.

This isn’t the Jesus who has chosen the weak, foolish, low and despised over the powerful, wise and noble (okay, so the foolish/wise thing checks out, but not the rest of it). This isn’t the Jesus who was rejected and murdered by His own people because they preferred a celebrity Messiah to the suffering servant. No, this jesus gets the theory of trickle-down blessings. He knows that the rich and famous are vital to redeeming the culture, and that we’ll all benefit from a redeemed culture, right? This jesus is smart, peeps.

This isn’t the Jesus who called men who abandon their wives adulterers, who treated women as valuable co-laborers and elevated them to equal status and importance. No, this jesus understands that when a strong man’s needs aren’t being met, or when his wife is unreasonably jealous of all the time he spends arranging and judging beauty pageants and drooling over objectified bodies, the best resolution of a bad situation might be to dump her and pick a younger, more flexible hottie who will be a help meet for him. This jesus wants to bless that man and his family, at least until it’s time to move on to the next one.

This isn’t the jesus who said, “In this world you will have trouble, but be of good cheer – I have overcome the world.” This isn’t the Jesus who assures us that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing to the joy in store for us hereafter. No, this jesus knows that you can have your best life now, if only the right celebrity pastor speaks the right words over you to secure all that good stuff and you have enough faith to claim it.

This isn’t the Jesus who resists the proud but gives grace to the humble – who justifies the weeping sinner but turns a deaf ear to the self-congratulating Pharisee. No, this jesus knows that the world needs strong leadership from men who know they are awesome and are willing to say so. This jesus appreciates the strength of character it takes for a man to say that he doesn’t need God’s forgiveness. This jesus knows that politics and world leadership is no place for humility. In fact, this jesus loves his followers so much that he enjoys seeing them applaud themselves after a bunch of pompous prayers to the camera.

This is ‘Murican jesus, baby!

There’s only one problem: ‘Murican jesus doesn’t exist. These prayers go no farther than the camera they are intended for. They have no response beyond the hollow applause of the participants. The real Jesus – the one who was, and is, and will be, after the last great empire has passed its time on the world stage and exited into oblivion – is not a divine vending machine. The real Jesus is building a much greater kingdom than that anticipated here. These self-important false prophets have no idea what a dangerous game they are playing by taking His name in vain.

To Play God Or To Obey God?

As desperate refugees from the Muslim world reach the west in ever-increasing numbers, we Christians have a choice to make. Will we play God, deciding what kinds of people are acceptable in our homelands and scrambling to exclude those whose extreme need and differing cultural perspectives might possibly unsettle our own comfortable lives? Or will we obey God, welcoming them as we would be welcomed in their situation? Will we build walls to insulate ourselves and protect our culture from contamination? Or will we recognize the astounding opportunity that God in His Providence is presenting to us and seize the moment?

There’s no question that the mass movement of Muslims into Europe and North America will change the face of our societies. Will we hide our light in Fortress America or let it shine? Will we bury ourselves with our talent in a napkin to preserve it until the Master’s return? Or will we trust and obey, caring for the stranger and the needy in front of us and let God handle the world as He always has?

It is all well and good to give our money so that someone else can go tell the world the good news. But when the world comes to us, our response will prove whether we really cared about the gospel or merely wished to check the box of evangelism.

And To Dust You Shall Return

Here’s a sincere question for my conservative Christian friends: as we lined up to vote for George W. Bush in 2000, would any of us have believed that in a short 15 years, the favorite candidate of the “Christian right” would be a philandering casino tycoon and Clinton donor with four bankruptcies, two divorces and God only knows how many affairs under his belt; an outspoken defender of partial birth abortion, gun control and the abuse of eminent domain who became famous by objectifying women and successful by paying off corrupt politicians (and is shameless enough to boast openly about it); a man whose insincerity is as plain as the hair on his head and whose assumed “Christianity,” though of the shallowest possible type, still comes across as an implausible piece of bad acting? Be honest – would any of us have believed that story for an instant?

Church, the political “Christian right” was at its best a defective clone, conceived in the laboratory of human invention – a heartless deformity on life support. It has been dead for some time and by now it stinketh. Now that the Trump campaign has done us all the favor of a very public, very nasty autopsy on national television, can we just bury it and get back to the proclamation of the Word, with an extra helping of humility? It’s past time, brothers and sisters.

Mirror, Mirror … ?

Jonathan Blanks has this response to the recent accusations that those protesting police misconduct are somehow responsible for the vicious murder of two NYPD officers last week:

Beyond the preening politicians, there have been those who would like to characterize criticism as a ‘war on cops.’ Admittedly, there are those people who have become so fed up with how they and their loved ones have been treated by police officers that criticism comes from a place of anger and frustration. But the police are ultimately responsible for how they treat the public and thus have considerable control over how they are perceived by that public. It is pure fantasy to believe that the outrage that has fueled the dozens of nationwide protests against police brutality has been manufactured against an otherwise beloved police force that in every case has great relationships with the communities they serve.

Furthermore, the war on cops rhetoric coming from some police sources only reinforce the point made by many critics of the police that too many officers hold an “us versus them” mentality when dealing with the public. If the police believe they are working among an enemy population, their treatment of the public will undoubtedly reflect that mindset.

There is no greater threat to police-public relations than a police force that holds open hostility towards the people it is charged with serving. This jeopardizes public safety not only from police-public violence, but endangers communities by undermining the legitimacy of law enforcement itself.

The crisis in police-public relations is nowhere more obvious than in the public discourse surrounding all these events. There is almost a complete reversal of appropriate criticism here. Everyone should be condemning this horrific murder of police officers. There’s no possible justification for such an act. Whether some of the rhetoric coming from those of us who object to today’s police culture could somehow encourage or seem to excuse a crime like this is a question we absolutely ought to be asking ourselves. Moreover, if we care about the lives and liberty of non-violent citizens, we ought to encourage everyone to respond with restraint and respect when interacting with the police, even if those police are themselves acting outside of the law. We should be the ones saying, “Don’t fight back; don’t resist arrest; don’t provoke violence – and we’ll have your back.” Speaking especially to civil libertarians: we should be the first ones to recognize that initiating violence, against police officers in particular, is immoral, inexcusable and guaranteed to cause a further loss of liberty for all Americans.

On the other hand, the moral responsibility to check lawlessness and abuse of authority within law enforcement ranks lies first and foremost with those good, law-abiding officers who, we are constantly assured, make up the vast majority of police officers in this country. Whether the abusive behavior and militaristic mindset of a minority of officers could contribute to the widening loss of respect for law enforcement across much of our society is a question they ought to be publicly and privately asking. If they care about their fellow officers going home safely every night, they ought to be making a very public example of those few among them whose arrogance and violent tendencies unnecessarily cause harm or death. They should be the first ones to recognize that, as the public face of the law, they can encourage either respect or disrespect for the law by their interactions with the public.

Instead, we have the opposite. Activists who have a moral obligation to condemn this crime, especially in the present context, instead rush to point out the culpability of abusive police officers, while police spokesmen and supporters condemn peaceful and law-abiding critics for exercising the very liberties that they ostensibly exist to protect. And all the while, the violent spiral continues, fueled rather than restrained by the finger pointing, the hatred and the dishonest propaganda on all sides.

If Not Now, When?

Apparently this moment in time – when Ferguson is burning, Darren Wilson’s supporters are celebrating, and Obama is talking – is not the appropriate time to discuss police misconduct and the problems with our criminal justice system or to try to understand the causes of this horrible series of tragedies. At least that is what we’re being told. The reasons we are given by those who say that this is not the right time for those discussions are pretty diverse. I disagree with all of them – predictably, I hope. But let’s take a look at some of the best.

If we really cared about black lives we would be talking about abortion.

Back during the 2012 election season, Randy Alcorn complained that every time he addressed abortion, some liberal was sure to ask why he wasn’t also talking about unjust war. He was right, of course; anyone who has been vocal in defense of the unborn has been asked the same question. It’s almost invariably an attempt to either shut down the discussion, shame the speaker (under the assumption that they most likely have supported some pretty sketchy wars) or change the subject. It is an evasive tactic to avoid dealing with the injustice and immorality of one’s own position.

So is this one.

Of course we should be talking about abortion. Yes, it is a greater threat to black lives than police brutality. It’s also a greater threat to all American lives than gun control, or ISIS, or ObamaCare, or GMOs, or – you get the idea? Matt Walsh, next time you’re tempted to write something about Ebola, remember that abortion is an exponentially more serious threat to everything we hold dear as – as – as whatever we are.

There are any number of critical issues facing America today that desperately need to be held up to the light – the light of the truth, of the Gospel, of reason, of history. Unfortunately, I can’t write about all of them every day. I don’t post nearly as often as I’d like. Perhaps that’s a good thing. But speaking out on one important issue is not the same as denying, or even minimizing, other issues of equal or greater importance. Don’t try to pull this one; it’s the rhetorical equivalent of squirming in your seat – and it’s pretty obvious.

The real issue is that our society has rejected God; don’t get hung up on police brutality like those godless libertarians.

This one gets to me because it is presented as if all the rejection of God is on the part of the criminal, the protestor, and the victim. Sure, looting and burning, disrespecting police officers and calling for summary justice are all symptoms of society’s rejection of God. What doesn’t seem to occur to those who raise this as an objection? Systemic injustice, abuse of power, extortion, deception, gratuitous violence and murder by police officers are the fruit of the same tree.

More importantly, our modern society isn’t unique in that regard. I understand that many people simply mean to say that biblical standards of morality, once widely accepted, are now as widely rejected in our culture. That is true. But it’s hardly new. Society rejected God in the garden and has been living out that rejection ever since. I wonder if anyone said to John the Baptist, “Listen, John, the real issue is that the Jews have rejected God. Don’t get hung up on Herod and his incest; get out there and preach to the mob. They’re the ones who need to hear it.”

The police will always be dealing largely with sinners in rebellion against God. And guess what? The police will always be made up largely of sinners in rebellion against God. As Christians, we have a responsibility to speak truth to power as well as to everyone else. Sin is sin, violence is violence, murder is murder, regardless of legal sanction or lack thereof.

These black protestors are looting and destroying their own city? How can you support them?

Sigh. First of all, acknowledging and seeking to understand their grievances is not necessarily support.  Secondly, “The protestors” are a diverse group with widely divergent motives, agendas and goals. You cannot expect to be taken seriously by thinking people when you make sweeping generalizations about their actions and intents. Think about this for a moment. Who are the protestors?

Some are professional civil rights activists. For the most part, they aren’t from Ferguson. Some of them are no doubt sincerely hoping to help focus the nation’s attention on serious problems of injustice in the judicial system and police culture. Others, to put it bluntly, are constituents of racism; they profit from racial tension and, while they probably aren’t burning buildings or overturning police cars, they will do what they can to inflame the situation and seize the limelight.

Some are anarchist troublemakers, career agitators, rebels without a cause. They aren’t from Ferguson either. They live in their parent’s basements, playing video games, watching InfoWars and posting inflammatory, obscenity-laced comments on the internet until unrest somewhere presents an opportunity to riot. I know because I’ve dealt with them first hand. Some are better organized, like the Black Bloc (“black” here refers to their clothing – they are almost all white) while others are just losers seeking a thrill. My guess, based on observation and experience but without personal knowledge of the situation in Ferguson, is that they are less than ten percent of the protestors and responsible for ninety percent of the destruction.

Then there are the locals – the people of Ferguson. They aren’t a monolithic group either. Men who have been systematically harassed by an out-of-control PD; mothers and fathers who fear for their children’s future; youths who have grown up without a parent; respected pastors and community leaders; elected officials; business owners. The angriest of their young men will find justification in the rhetoric of the activists, sympathy and incitement in the anarchists, and satisfaction in joining the destruction. But for the most part, the locals are the last ones to blame for the rioting, the looting, the wanton destruction of property. Yet they are the ones who will bear all the blame, as well as all the burden of recovering from the devastation.

The least we can do is to acknowledge the reality of their grievances, to stop excusing violence and crime when it hides behind a badge. We can recognize that even if Darren Wilson was perfectly justified – and he may have been – officers who abuse their power endanger those who serve honorably as much as themselves. We can use the opportunity presented by this horrible tragedy to change the way society thinks about crime – to challenge the deification of the State and give God’s law, not man’s, the highest place. We can at least seek to make the law respectable as we call on our fellow citizens to respect it.

Simple, Right?

In the ongoing tragedy that is Ferguson, MO, one of the most tragic aspects of all is the hardening contempt each side of the conflict feels and expresses for the other. As a white conservative I am ashamed of the grossly simplified generalizations that characterize the discussion on the right. But more than anything, I am grieved by the widening gulf, on this and many other issues, between neighbors, fellow citizens and, most especially, fellow believers.

After the Grand Jury decision not to indict Wilson was announced last night, the usually thoughtful Matt Walsh opined this morning, “Brown instigated this encounter, tried to hurt the officer, and paid for it with his life. That’s it. That’s all. This whole outrage was based on rumor and false testimony. You either accept the facts, or you brand yourself a liar and a fraud.”

No, Matt, that’s not it and that’s not all.

In France, 1789, the explosion of rage, murder and destruction we call the French Revolution ignited a fifty year period of chaos and death. The world looked on in disbelief as the desperation-fueled heroism of those who stormed the Bastille gave way to Robespierre and the reign of terror. Observers all over the west shook their heads as centuries’ worth of cultural, religious and political effort was dismantled and destroyed, and waxed philosophical in their armchairs over the sheer stupidity of the French public. If any people could be accused of destroying their own city – even beyond that, of destroying themselves – the French peasantry of the late eighteenth century were guilty.

Edmund Burke criticized the French Revolution in a series of pamphlets, speeches, etc. In his first pamphlet he accused the French people of rebelling “against a mild and lawful monarch, with more fury, outrage, and insult, than any people has been known to rise against the most illegal usurper, or the most sanguinary tyrant.”

This accusation drew the ire of the American author Thomas Paine, who replied, “It was not against Louis the XVIth, but against the despotic principles of the government, that the nation revolted. These principles had not their origin in him, but in the original establishment, many centuries back: and they were become too deeply rooted to be removed, and the Augean stables of parasites and plunderers too abominably filthy to be cleansed by anything short of a complete and universal Revolution. … Perhaps no man bred up in the style of an absolute king, ever possessed a heart so little disposed to the exercise of that species of power as the present King of France. But the principles of the Government itself still remained the same. The Monarch and the Monarchy were distinct and separate things; and it was against the established despotism of the latter, and not against the person or principles of the former, that the revolt commenced, and the Revolution has been carried.”

Paine went on to lash out at Burke for his aristocratic sympathies and his refusal to even attempt to see the revolution from the perspective of the oppressed people of France. “Not one glance of compassion,” he wrote, “not one commiserating reflection that I can find throughout his book, has he bestowed on those who lingered out the most wretched of lives, a life without hope in the most miserable of prisons. … He pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird.”

Ouch.

Burke and Paine both made legitimate points, and both were blinded by their own prejudices. In his sympathy for the horrific suffering of the French people, Paine glossed over many of the terrible crimes and excesses they committed. But his critique of Burke on this point was devastatingly accurate. Burke saw the sins of the French Revolution in a political and historical vacuum. He saw them as a grave threat to the relatively orderly subordination of English society and to the aristocratic system. He failed to acknowledge the crushing weight of centuries of accumulated oppression and how that history shaped the French people, and he failed to distinguish between the many aspects of the revolution and the motivations of its various groups and factions.

Those who look with contempt on the whole mass of protesters in Ferguson – without distinction, without even an attempt to perceive their widely different motivations – are guilty of just such an error. The killing of Michael Brown, whether justified or not, occurred in a decades-old context of unchecked law enforcement brutality and deep-seated hostility between people of color in Ferguson and their police. Back in the late ’90s journalists described the area as a racial volcano destined to erupt. In 2012 Ferguson police officers mistakenly arrested an innocent black man and beat him savagely in a holding cell, only to discover their mistake afterwards. Rather than risk the consequences of a public acknowledgement they charged him with destruction of government property for bleeding on their uniforms. While a judge dismissed those charges, none of the officers involved were punished. In this context it would be shocking if the black community were to calmly accept a grand jury decision not to indict. They have no faith in the system, and for good reason.

Then, too, there is a fundamental distrust of this particular process that is equally understandable. No one expected the grand jury to indict Wilson. Jonathan Blanks, writing for Rare today, observed that “The law enforcement apparatus in and around St. Louis County treated the citizenry with open contempt. In his press conference yesterday, St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch sounded more like a defense attorney for Wilson rather than a prosecutor who failed to get an indictment.”

Legal blogger and defense attorney Scott Greenfield was more specific. “All the evidence,” he writes, “is a phrase that applies to a trial. A trial is a procedure that happens in an open courtroom, where adversaries zealously present their case and challenge the other side’s case. It is transparent because we can watch it unfold, develop, happen before our eyes. We hear the questions and answers, the objections and rulings. We hear the request to admit evidence and the voir dire and challenge to its admission. We hear the opening arguments and summations. … Whether Darren Wilson would have been convicted after trial remains unclear; perhaps the case against him for the killing of Michael Brown wouldn’t have survived scrutiny. Perhaps the structural benefits given law enforcement to kill without fear would have allowed him to circumvent conviction. Perhaps he wasn’t guilty. We will never know. … The merit of the grand jury presentation relies entirely on our acceptance of Bob McCulloch’s office desiring an indictment against Darren Wilson. Just as a prosecutor can indict any damn person he pleases, he can similarly make sure a person is not indicted.” (Read the whole post – it’s worth your time.)

When was the last time you saw a police officer indicted, let alone convicted, for excessive use of force, without a viral video either leaked or recorded by a bystander? Even in those cases where a concerned citizen is in the right place at the right time to make such a recording, how often are officers actually prosecuted? Answer those questions honestly, and then tell me why, in that context, any of us should be expected to accept the grand jury’s finding as fact?

Wilson may have been completely justified. But to dismiss those who distrust the process as liars and frauds is either tragically simple-minded or disingenuous.