The Beatitudes: Re-thinking Law Enforcement Officers & Race Relations

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I posted this picture on my Facebook account last week, which prompted a lot of pushback from a friend of mine who has worked as a police officer.  The topic of our conversation, like many I’ve had with friends and acquaintences that currently or have worked as police officers, is their objection to the idea that there exists a mass movement of police brutality toward African-Americans and other people of color across the country.  They object to the idea that every single person who puts on the uniform is taught a way of doing their job that prejudiced and biased towards people of color, and that the law unilaterally protects them so they are free to commit such acts.  My friend and many of the police officers I converse object to the idea that all cops are racist.

I would contend that perhaps the acts of violence themselves aren’t systemic, but the attitude of racial prejudice is systemic, but systemic in our society, not solely within the ranks of law enforcement officers.  I think that police, like most organizations, are a cross-section of society.  That means yes, racist folks exist within their organization.  But it also means that not all cops are racist. Yet, I do wonder if we have issues within law enforcement departments that work to protect and ignore the comments and actions of those who are racist, rather than hold them accountable for such attitudes and action.

However, my conversations with friends and acquaintances have me wondering where the gospel is for those who wear the badge when we talk about racism.  Where is the word of grace and reconciliation for them, just as it is offered for all people?

A mentor of mine, in our conversation about law enforcement officers and race, raised this thought to me: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”  This verse from the 5th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, the passage known as the Beatitudes, is usually taught to us as God’s blessing on those who we deem peaceful – folks like Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela, and the like.  Seldom do we think of folks like police officers, sheriffs and their deputies, or even military in such a way.  They carry weapons, they wear intimidating uniforms, they work for the very powers and empires that freely use violence in the name of keeping peace, right?

But when he said “peacemakers,” what if Jesus was talking about the Roman guards that were around them everyday?  What if Jesus was saying, “Those guys over there in uniform, who represent the empire you despise, yet keep the peace in a way that doesn’t abuse power, but rather serves and protects each of you?  Blessed are they…because they are children of God.  I’m including them as well.”  Maybe you object to that notion, but we know such people existed, because it’s right there in the Bible.  In chapter 7 of Luke’s gospel, there’s an account about a Roman Centurion whose daughter is sick, and the Jewish people appeal to Jesus to heal her on the grounds that “he is worthy for you to do this, for he loves our people.”  What if today, Jesus’ same blessing is for police officers today?

A member of my congregation, a police officer who serves in Norfolk, VA: “Pastor, so I was out the other day, and this little black kid comes up to me and strikes up a conversation.  I got out of my car and started talking with him, because I want him to trust me.  But then his mom comes up, snatches him away by the arm, and I hear her say, ‘You don’t ever talk to those people.’ Now how am I supposed to get past that attitude?  And isn’t she just making the problem worse?  I want the neighborhood I patrol to trust me, and I’m trying.”

Blessed are the peacemakers.

A former police officer shared this story, “Our department was going to arrest this kid who was ID’d at the scene of a crime.  The plan was to go in, full breach, because they feared he might run.  My partner spoke up and said, hey, my partner works that area, he knows these people.  After skepticism that it would work, I eventually got the go ahead to go to the house.  The mother let me in, even after I told her the news was bad and we had to arrest her son.  There was a pistol on his dresser, but because it was me, and we didn’t go in breaking their door down, we were able to avoid someone getting killed.”

Blessed are the peacemakers.

I wonder if there is a difference between “peacemakers” and “law enforcement,” not so much as what one does in their job, but instead as attitudes or postures one adopts as they look at their role and responsibility. Those who enforce the Law are suspicious, taking on a “guilty until proven innocent” posture.  They enforce the law as means of imposing the law with the goal to subdue.  Peacemakers look at their role differently.  They work to “serve and protect” the neighborhoods they patrol, and the law is a means to ensure people are kept safe, that peace is kept and maintained.  Peacemaking is a means to allow people to live freely, rather than a means of suppression and control.  Law Enforcement’s aim is to impose a way of life on people; peacemaking’s aim is to live life with people in community.

As much as I think we have an obligation to listen to the stories of people of color and the ways they are discriminated against, we also have an obligation to listen to those who wear the police uniform and strive to keep peace  We have that obligation because Jesus has mandated “blessed are the peacemakers” and they are children of God.  As the church, it is that status and identity that frames our relationships, and the Body of Christ and the prophetic proclamation of God’s justice – especially in the topic of race – suffers if we condemn or silence any one part of it.

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