Biblical interpretations that don’t take into account historical and contextual realities can be used to further oppression. To simply take a Bible verse and apply it to any given situation can at worst, contribute to harm and violence. For instance, police officers love to quote Matthew 5:9: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” For some police departments, this verse has become their unofficial slogan and can be found on numerous “Blue Lives Matter” merchandise.
Now to be clear, I do not have an issue with individual police officers who, through their study of the Bible find the courage, hope, and most importantly compassion to do their jobs. However, such a study needs to be tempered with the fact that law enforcement in the United States is extremely problematic and it continues to be used in ways that enforce racism and violence.
Police officers who are compassionate and are able to see the love of God in each person they interact with-no matter how vile the actions they have committed should be commended and they are very much needed.
However, the reality is that even if 95% of individual police officers are fantastic human beings, the institution-like any institution of power, has its roots in racism and oppression. Not to mention that the laws that police officers have to enforce-whether they want to or not-can themselves be unjust and harmful.
As a result, while it is important to recognize that individual police officers are beloved children of God-the institution of law enforcement is NOT a sacred institution created by God. And the problem with the widespread adoption of Matthew 5:9 by numerous police officers and departments in the United States is that this use of the Biblical text imbues the institution of law enforcement with an aura of “holiness” that discourages criticism.
This use of the text rips a particular verse out of its historical and literary context and uses it to justify an institution whose very existence is based on protecting state power. Yes, law enforcement officers are supposed to “protect and serve” and many do so in numerous capacities throughout their careers, but law enforcement also protects the status quo-for better or for worse.
This co-opting of Matthew 5:9 contributes to a dangerous perception amongst some in law enforcement that because their job is difficult and dangerous, that they are above criticism. It ties an institution of Empire with the Kingdom of Heaven.
Look through any number of social media accounts for police departments, online articles, and events celebrating law enforcement or honoring those killed in the line of duty, and the perception of the institution as holy, above reproach, and as being “persecuted” is reiterated again and again.
For instance, one police department on facebook shared the tragic news of an officer killed in the line of duty with the hashtag, #itneedstostop. Yes, of course, the shooting and killing of police officers need to stop, but so do the morally unjustifiable killings of unarmed people. Yet bring up that fact and some in law enforcement become immediately defensive.
Black and Brown people killed by law enforcement, even if they are found to be unarmed, are often ridiculed. In fact, read any story about an unarmed person being killed by a police officer and immediately the person is blamed for their actions. Officers, because they “protect” and “risk their lives” are to be given the benefit of the doubt while the unarmed person’s humanity is trampled upon.
This hijacking of Matthew 5:9 gives the impression that God instituted law enforcement and that police officers can do no wrong, while those unjustly killed by law enforcement are not viewed as beloved children of God in the same manner that police officers are.
It is important to remember that the central figure of Christianity is a brown Palestinian who had no qualms about breaking religious or Roman law. The fact Jesus did so nonviolently did not matter to those in power. Jesus was still arrested, beaten and crucified.
While the Roman soldiers who did the actual arresting, beating, and killing were just following orders and “doing their job,” it still resulted in the death of an innocent, unarmed person. And Jesus’ death was not an anomaly, it was a symptom of larger issues within the Roman Empire.
Yet, the Roman soldiers weren’t categorically all evil people. I wonder how many were forced to serve? I wonder what alternatives they had? The individuals could be the most outstanding people but in the framework of the larger Empire, they too participated in inequality, whether they wanted to or not.
Likewise, the deaths of unarmed black and brown people represent larger issues within American society and law enforcement. Again, I am not condemning as evil all individual police officers. I personally know many good police officers who would do anything to help another person. And they are the first to admit that their institution and larger american society suffers from various forms of bigotry.
Officers are more apt to notice the weaknesses and injustices within their own departments if they are members of the LGBTQ community, are women, and/or are minorities. They may love their job and their peers but they are also subject to racism, sexism, and homophobia within their job.
Tying any institution, including “the Church” to the Kingdom of God is dangerous. The Church, like law enforcement, has advocated for the slaughter and oppression of numerous people. The Church, like law enforcement, has used the language of legality to get away with murder and mayhem. Of course, other state institutions have used sacred language to defend their immoral actions.
For example, politicians and religious leaders have interpreted Biblical texts in ways that endorse injustices such as racism and Trump’s “Zero Tolerance” policy towards immigrants, undocumented or not. This post affirms that police officers, like all human beings, are beloved children of God. It simply asks that police departments and churches pursue a more nuanced and thoughtful interpretation of Biblical texts. How those in power use and interpret Scripture matters.