On Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and government terror

The favorite Bible passage for traditional Christians related to government authority is Romans 13:1-7. One key line in that passage says this (v. 3, NRSV):

Rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God's servant for your good.

It makes sense, doesn't it? Government authorities, like police officers, are public servants. They are frightening only to those who are bad and do wrong. But those of us who are not bad and do not do wrong need not be afraid of public servants like police officers. They will offer us only good; they will not harm us. How many times have I heard white preachers and theologians present this happy version of how divinely ordained government authority works?

The late Philando Castile did not find it to be the case last night near St. Paul, Minnesota. The late Alton Sterling did not find it to be the case two days before in Baton Rouge. These black men were shot by white police officers, two of 123 black Americans shot by police so far in 2016, out of a total of 506 nationwide.

The Philando Castile Facebook video is likely to be seen as one of the most remarkable and terrifying texts of our time. Every American must watch it. It is evening but not dark near St. Paul. Castile's girlfriend, identified as Lavish Reynolds, is live-narrating the shooting of her bleeding, slumped, companion. This is a brave act, as a white police officer, who has just done this shooting, still has the gun pointed at her through the driver's side window.

Castile was pulled over for having a busted taillight. His "offense" from that point appears to have been to have informed the police officer that he was legally carrying a firearm so as not to surprise him when he spotted it, and then attempting to obey the officer's order to retrieve his driver's license from his wallet, in the vicinity of his firearm. At which point he was shot four times, and died, in the presence of his brave girlfriend and her daughter.

Government authorities, like police officers, are public servants. They are supposed to be frightening only to those who are bad and do wrong. They are supposed to hold no terror for those who are not bad and have done no wrong. Much of the time, they do exactly what they are supposed to do, and for this we can be grateful.

But they are armed. And the weapons they carry can easily kill people. This means that police officers must be trained to be extraordinarily disciplined in their perceptions of situations and people, and extraordinarily restrained in their use of deadly force. Otherwise the power they have to protect the innocent becomes a power to destroy the innocent. Otherwise their power to keep order becomes a power that creates disorder. Otherwise the sight of a police car in one's rearview mirror becomes a fear that one will not survive the encounter — a fear that black people in America know all too well.

People should not have to be afraid of dying during routine traffic stops. This is horrifying and outrageous.

It looks to me like some kind of mandatory stand-down period is needed for our nation's police forces, accompanied by a period of substantial retraining, and early retiring or dismissal of any and all police officers found to have used excessive force. Leadership for this effort needs to be provided by the United States Justice Department with the full cooperation of state and local police leadership.

Lavish Reynolds says near the end of her video, speaking poignantly for all black people unjustly victimized by the police:

Please, Lord, you know our rights, Lord. You know we are innocent people, Lord. We are innocent people.

Her cry should break all of our hearts, and galvanize our actions.

Not long after writing those words in Romans 13 about divinely ordained government authority, Paul was unjustly and cruelly murdered under the orders of Nero himself. If Paul had survived his encounter with Caesar, I wonder if he might have written a new letter, saying something like this:

Rulers are not supposed to be a terror to good conduct, but to bad. But when government authorities terrorize the innocent, and bring bad rather than good, they violate God's will and their very purpose — and you, my brothers and sisters in Christ, must join others in resisting them with every fiber of your being.

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