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Quick Takes

Of Police, Riots, and Sin (R. Ward Holder)

In the public imagination, dualism rules the day. The dualistic mindset sees things in pairs, and tends to perceive only absolutes. Evil must be balanced by good. The ways of righteousness have nothing to do with the ways of wickedness. Such dualism has characterized the fevered public discussion following the incidents involving Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

In the public imagination, dualism rules the day.  The dualistic mindset sees things in pairs, and tends to perceive only absolutes.  Evil must be balanced by good.  The ways of righteousness have nothing to do with the ways of wickedness.  Such dualism has characterized the fevered public discussion following the incidents involving Michael Brown and Eric Garner.  Issues of police militarization, the question of equal protection before the law, and the spectre of unleashed violence moving through the streets has galvanized a number of voices, from New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio to Attorney General Eric Holder to Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson to New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton and Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association head Pat Lynch.  Of course, that’s before the various media voices at Fox or ABC or NBC or CBS or NPR or MSNBC present the strange mixture of reporting and advocacy that passes for news coverage in America.  But all seek to drill down, to find that moment or insight that will allow penetration to the heart of the matter so that we can see who was in the right.

Of course, it is that desire to see exactly who is righteous in these cases that is theologically indefensible.  By now, the details of the Brown and Garner cases do not need much rehearsal.  Michael Brown was a young African American man who had some sort of altercation (accounts differ widely) with Ferguson Police Force officer Darren Wilson, and Wilson shot Brown.  In Staten Island, Eric Garner was an African American man in his forties who was suspected of selling loose cigarettes and who in the process of being arrested was subdued by an apparent chokehold that is banned by New York Police Department guidelines (accounts differ widely).  Garner died, and the coroner ruled the incident a homicide.  In both cases, the officers involved were not indicted for any criminal charges, whether murder or lesser charges such as manslaughter or assault.  Protests ensued, both peaceful and those that dissolved into riots.  In one of the most extreme cases, Michael Brown’s stepfather, Louis Head, encouraged protesters to “Burn this bitch down,” after the grand jury brought back no indictment.  Police responded, both with calm policing and with intentional abrogation of civil rights, such as the prohibition of journalist’s coverage of the events, and claims of special status before the law.  In one of the most extreme cases, San Jose Police Officer Phillip White tweeted that “Threaten me or my family and I will use my God given and law appointed right and duty to kill you. #CopsLivesMatter.”


I have been deliberately balanced in this presentation.  This is not because all parties have been equally responsible, but because it is important to make a theological point.  In this world of sin, it is impossible to find any actor who always works from pure motives.  Reinhold Niebuhr sought to point this out in both his Moral Man and Immoral Society, and later in his Nature and Destiny of Man.  Writing about the human condition in societal groupings, Niebuhr noted that all human communities were unwilling to extend to others the rights and privileges that they claimed as their own due.  Commenting upon human nature, Niebuhr saw that self-interest would cloud not only human desires, but also our ability to reason clearly and impartially.  Niebuhr drew this from John Calvin’s doctrine of original sin that manages to maintain, albeit imperfectly, both the facts of inevitability and human responsibility for original sin.

This lack of trust in the human condition, or to put it positively, the full-throated “amen” to the realization of the effects of sin – affected the foundations of the United States Constitution.  One of its most significant framers was James Madison, who had imbibed his Calvinistic distrust of any human institution from a variety of Presbyterian clergy who were his instructors, including John Witherspoon at the College of New Jersey.  Though perhaps a deist in his overall theology, Madison seems to have taken human frailty seriously, and later helped to create a form of government characterized most significantly as a system of checks and balances, where various political actors were constantly foiling the grand (and thus more open to grand sin) designs of others.  But today, the various checks and balances are not working.

Therefore, it should be no surprise that the most significant acts of the Brown and Garner incidents have happened out of sight.  John 3.19 proclaims that “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and the people loved the darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.”  Why was it necessary for Ferguson police to stop journalists from recording their work?  Why was it necessary for prosecutors in both jurisdictions to avoid the scrutiny of a trial where evidence would be presented before the public, and in an adversarial process?  And by this same token, why has it been necessary for demonstrations to have been held under the cover of night, when the turn to violence and looting was more likely?


My suggestion is not that an equal amount of blame should be assigned to all the parties in the two incidents.  Both incidents are outrageous in their own ways, from leaving a dead man-child in the street for four hours and a grand jury process designed not to indict, to the killing of a man who was not violent for the suspected crime of selling loose cigarettes – followed by yet another grand jury process aimed at avoiding indictment.  Instead, the call is for a Christian realist theological lens through which to view these actions, that does not create heroes out of those with whom we agree.  Sins have been committed, and more sins have followed both to cover the first sins, and to respond in kind.  The tragic and senseless executions of Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos in Brooklyn by Ismaaiyl Brinsley who claimed to be acting in revenge for Brown and Garner only points out the tragedies that come from these paths.

Instead, it is time for accountability.  Police take on a dangerous job, and an enormous public service.  But that does not absolve them from culpability for the acts they commit while on the job.  Similarly, protesters must obey the law, and accept the consequences when they do not.  But neither side can be cloaked in the mantle of righteousness that refuses accountability.  The foundation of the American civil experiment is equality before the law – for all citizens.  The foundation of all Christian community and outreach is our common beginning – all are created in the image of God.  We must choose accountability, both for police and for protesters.  To fail to do so is to fail to recognize our common humanity, our place before God, and our duties as citizens.


R. Ward Holder is a Professor of Theology at Saint Anselm College. His research focuses on the history of the Reformation, in particular the thought of John Calvin, and increasingly on the field of political theology as well.

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