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Tuesday, September 15, 2020

A New-Testament Theology of Policing

Not long after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, our excellent online managing editor Andrea Palpant Dilley was looking through an advance copy of one of this year’s most anticipated books, Esau McCaulley’s Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope. In it, she found a chapter that, with a few well-chosen adaptations, seemed ideally suited to speak meaningfully into the movements for racial justice overspreading the country.

The resulting essay, which outlined a New-Testament theology of policing, anchored the cover package for the September issue of CT. (A companion article, by Michael LeFebvre, explored the ethics of policing from the perspective of the Old Testament.)

Here’s a sampling from McCaulley’s piece:

“Over the years,” he writes, “I have been stopped between seven and ten times, on the road or in public spaces, for no crime other than being black. The people I love have also been stopped, searched, accused, and humiliated with little to no legal justification. These disclosures might give the impression that I don’t like police officers. On the contrary, I have known many good ones. I recognize the dangers they face and the difficulties inherent in the vocation they choose. But having a difficult job does not absolve one of criticism; it simply puts the criticism in a wider framework. That wider framework has to include the history of the police in this country—their legal enforcement of racial discrimination and the terror they have visited on black bodies.

“The dark silt of that history has been brought to the surface by recent events, most notably the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police. The many protesters who have marched in our nation’s streets bear witness to the fact that Floyd is not the first. Black Americans have been ‘under the knee’ for not days or weeks but centuries, and this cumulative oppression is once again front and center in our national consciousness.

“As a country trying to come to terms with our view of policing, we turn to books, podcasts, conversations in the public square, and projects in our communities. That’s all fine and good. But as believers, we must turn our eyes to Scripture, not in order to ‘proof-text’ but in order to think theologically about how the state polices its residents. The New Testament, in particular, points toward a theology of policing that is often neglected by laity, clergy, and even scholars.

“Surprisingly, this subject has seen very little reflection in the standard works on New Testament ethics. But the guild has missed something. The state’s treatment of its citizens is not a subject foreign to the New Testament, and black folk looking to these texts will in fact find succor and hope. Taken as a whole, these passages are absolutely fundamental to how we think about the future of policing in America.”

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