“Black lives matter.” That should be a given, especially in a nation that’s a kaleidoscope of color. But those three words have become a charged political statement this year. The reason? It implies that black lives don’t matter to some people, or that black lives haven’t always mattered in America.
The sad reality is that both of these are true. No matter how ugly it is to contemplate, some people see other races as worth less than their own. And no matter how hard we work to live out the promise of the Declaration of Independence — that all men truly are created equal — that was not always true for all Americans. We cannot forget that the Constitution sanctioned race-based slavery; it was not expunged from the document until 1865.
Of course, we cannot forget that slavery was expiated at an incredible cost by a brutal war during which, to paraphrase Lincoln, “every drop of blood drawn with the lash” was “paid by another drawn with the sword.” To be sure, the Civil War began as an effort to preserve the Union, but there can be no doubt that it evolved into a crusade against slavery. Some 364,500 Union soldiers gave up their lives to end the scourge of slavery. In the stirring words of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” they died “to make men free.”
Even so, the scar of slavery remains on America’s soul. Times of racial violence, like those this summer, expose the scar and reopen old wounds.
Followers of Christ know that all lives matter to God: black lives and white lives. Red and brown and yellow lives. Unborn lives and disabled lives and aging lives. All life matters to God, because all of us are made in His image. As the Apostle Paul observed in a time and place far more focused on the differences separating humanity than on the commonalities uniting humanity, in Christ there is neither “Greek nor Gentile nor Jew,” “no barbarian, Scythian, slave or free.” No black or white.
Paul’s point is that color, class, and other such things do not matter. What matters is what’s in the heart. To think or live otherwise is to ignore the truth — and to sin against God.
There is a “loss of humanity when any of us are judged at a glance,” as Attorney General Loretta Lynch observed during this summer of violence, poignantly adding “whether by the color of our skin or the color of our uniform.”
The Badge and the Bull’s-eye
Lynch’s words remind us that blue lives matter as well.
Blue, of course, refers to the color that police officers wear. They are human, which means they make mistakes. Like every vocation, there are bad apples among their ranks. But the overwhelming majority of them do what’s right. They run toward danger while the rest of us run away. They answer when we call for help. They literally stand, like a thin blue border, between chaos and order. And unlike most of us, they go to work knowing they may not make it home.
Too many of us — especially in America — forget that the natural order of this world is not all that orderly. We take our freedom for granted; we take the absence of chaos for granted; we take security and safety for granted — forgetting that the blessings of freedom must be protected. Without law, without some infrastructure of order, freedom can descend into license and then into anarchy.
When conscience, decency, and respect for the law fail to restrain the worst among us, police officers serve as society’s last line of defense. They represent the rule of law. They protect the law-abiding public from those who show contempt for society by breaking the laws of society.
As of Aug. 4, 2016, 69 law-enforcement officers had been killed in the line of duty this year — an 8-percent increase over this time last year. What’s especially alarming, as the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund reports, is that 2016 has seen a “78-percent spike in firearms-related officer fatalities, many of which were ambush-style killings.” With 21 officers killed, law-enforcement agencies in Texas (14) and Louisiana (7) have endured the worst of the carnage this year.
The consequences of targeted attacks against police officers are profound and deeply troubling. These are attacks against the very foundation of social and public order. They are attacks against the rule of law itself. If these attacks become the new normal, they will dramatically change the way police forces interact with the people they serve — and undermine the foundations of our society.
First, if this is the wave of the future, police forces will become increasingly concerned with what the military calls “force protection” — the safeguards that deployed U.S. military units apply to prevent or diminish hostile actions that might be directed against them overseas. Our police and sheriff’s departments, unlike our troops, shouldn’t be concerned about protecting themselves when answering a 911 call. Their focus should be on protecting and serving their neighbors, their communities, those in need of help. But if they are being ambushed, they understandably will lose that focus — and they will not be able to carry out their primary duty.
Police who are more concerned about self-protection than citizen protection will not respond to calls as quickly, or may not respond to calls at all. Perhaps they will armor up to such a degree that they become quasi-militaries, or perhaps they will withdraw from their communities. All these reactions make sense in an atmosphere of ambush and assassination, but none of them serve the public good. “A badge should not be a bull’s-eye,” as Chris Southwood, president of the Illinois Fraternal Order of Police, said in a New York Times interview.
Second, if police officers are delayed in their responses, law-abiding citizens will increasingly feel compelled to take the law into their own hands. The result would be the rise of vigilantism and a return to a Wild West approach to law enforcement and governance.
We may romanticize that period in films and TV shows, but there’s a reason the Wild West is part of history: It was brutal and bloody and chaotic, and most of us wouldn’t want to live there.
What Can We as Christ Followers do?
We can pray for our cities, our country and all those who protect us from lawlessness. Paul advised Timothy to pray for “those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives.” Paul understood that those who enforce civil law — imperfect as they may be — are not the enemy. The enemies of peace are lawless people.
We can pray that when we see our neighbors, we not only see the color of their skin and uniform; but that we also see Christ. We can, through acts of kindness, mercy, and grace in our own corners of the world, work “to bridge divides, to heal rifts, to restore trust and to ensure that every American feels respected, supported, and safe,” in Lynch’s pitch-perfect words.
We can pursue justice — demanding that law enforcement be held accountable for mistakes, that those who abuse the power to take someone’s liberty (or life) are punished, that institutional racism is identified and rooted out, that policymakers institute criminal-justice reforms where needed. However, we can never pursue justice through unjust means. A police-action shooting — even when it appears the use of deadly force was wrong — does not excuse rioting, mayhem, or murder. As Lynch observes, “There is no justification whatsoever for violence against law enforcement.”
We can engage and connect with our communities by inviting law-enforcement officials to our churches, neighborhood associations, schools, and workplaces, and asking them how we can be of help. It pays to recall that Paul saw himself as a citizen of Christ’s eternal kingdom and Rome’s earthly kingdom. He called believers “Christ’s ambassadors.” Yes, that means “our citizenship is in heaven,” as he put it. But to extend Paul’s metaphor, it also means that where we live right now matters enough to heaven that God has placed us here to represent and promote His interests.
One of those interests is order. God does not like chaos. Genesis tells us He brought form and order out of chaos. Paul writes that He is not a God of disorder. The given of Scripture is that earthly government — civil authority — is an important organizing feature of the world He created. Civil authority exists to maintain order, to protect life and property, to pursue justice. It is a gift of God’s common grace to all mankind. A world without civil authority would descend into lawlessness, where anarchy reigns, where the strongest survive and the weakest perish. God’s crowning creation cannot flourish without it.