Esau McCaulley on Paul’s Word to Police: Protect the Weak

Esau McCaulley is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America, an assistant professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, and the author of Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope (IVP Academic), from which this essay is adapted.

I grew up in a poverty-stricken neighborhood in Huntsville, Alabama. By the time I was 16, I was confident that football would be my path to college. The letters and phone calls from college coaches had just begun. All I had to do was perform on the field, keep up my grades, and stay out of trouble.

By “trouble,” I didn’t mean my own behavior. I was afraid of being harassed by the police and afraid that I might find myself in an encounter that spun out of control.

I came of age in the aftermath of the Rodney King incident, which confirmed my fears of the police. But “driving while black” was not simply a problem I saw on the news. It was something I experienced.

One night my junior year, my friends and I had plans to go to the mall and, later, a party in the same part of town. We stopped at a gas station to grab some snacks and fuel before continuing on to the night’s festivities. After I finished filling the tank, I climbed back into the car and got ready to leave. Then I noticed that a black SUV had pulled up close behind us. Another drove up to my left, and another parked in front of my car. I thought I was being carjacked, but who would carjack someone at a well-lit gas station?

When police came filing out of the SUVs, I realized what was going on. “Put your hands where we can see them,” an officer said.

“I’m not putting my hands anywhere,” one of my friends said.

Right then, my future flashed before my eyes. Had all my planning been for naught? Had I exchanged my dreams for a bag of chips and a few gallons of fuel?

I told my friend to be quiet and do as the officer said. When the officer ordered us to get out of the car, we complied. I asked him what was going on. He said that this particular gas station was a known drug hub and that he had seen us conducting a drug deal. I couldn’t help but think that this location was also a known place to acquire gas. But what could we do?

The whole thing lasted less than 20 minutes. They found nothing in their search. I expected some apology, some further explanation for why they had detained us other than for being young and black. Instead, they gave us back our licenses and told us we were free to go.

But I didn’t feel free. I felt powerless and angry. I had come too close to losing it all: the football scholarship, the path out of poverty, and the chance to help my family. I had been briefly terrorized.

Over the years, 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. (Read Michael LeFebvre’s companion essay on policing and the Old Testament, also in CT’s September issue.)

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.

The New Testament provides the beginning of a Christian theology of policing in two places. The first is Romans 13:1–7, a much-maligned and misunderstood text. Paul’s words on “the sword” bear directly on the question of how the state polices its residents.

At a glance, the first few verses of Romans 13 might not seem like a productive place to start. They read:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. (Rom. 13:1–2, NRSV throughout)

The focus of this passage appears to be individuals, not the state. Furthermore, Paul tells individuals to submit to the authorities, because those in power have been placed there by God. Those who resist run the risk of opposing God’s will.

Paul’s lack of qualification here has been cause for concern among both lay readers and scholars. As Leander Keck writes in his commentary Romans, “It is not the opaqueness of this passage that has distressed and divided interpreters but its clarity.”

Is Paul arguing that the proper Christian response to mistreatment is not revolution but obedience? And is our only hope the eschatological righting of wrongs on the other side of this life? Yes, that eschatological picture is important, but Paul has more in mind. His words about submission to authority must be read in light of a much larger context.

First, we have to look at Paul’s study of Pharaoh. His use of the Pharaoh narrative is almost universally ignored in studies of Romans 13, but it provides essential groundwork for a biblically informed theology of policing. Paul writes:

For the scripture says to Pharaoh, “I have raised you up for the very purpose of showing my power in you, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.” (Rom. 9:17)

According to the apostle, God is glorified through his judgment of wicked kings. Pharaoh was involved in the economic exploitation, enslavement, and harsh treatment of Israel, and God removed him because of his unjust and tyrannical rule.

As Paul notes, God’s destruction of Pharaoh is enacted partly through Moses. The story of Pharaoh, then, gives us an example of God removing authorities through human agents. More to the point, Paul’s interest in that story shows that his prohibition against resistance is not absolute.

Second, we have to understand Paul’s view of the state. Although Paul’s words to individuals have received the bulk of attention for exegetes, his comments about the state provide a fuller picture.

Paul’s call for submission to the state is grounded in a description of what the state itself should do:

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For 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. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! (Rom. 13:3–4)

In order to make sense of these words about the sword, we need to understand that in Paul’s time, soldiers performed a policing role. They were an “organized unit of men under official command whose duties involved maintaining public order and state control in a civilian setting,” writes Christopher J. Fuhrmann in Policing the Roman Empire. Although soldiers didn’t function exactly like modern police officers, they were in effect the closest thing to a police force.

In verses 3 and 4, Paul focuses on the authorities, not the officers themselves. He seems to recognize that a soldier’s attitude toward city residents will be determined in large part by those who give the orders. The problem, if there is one, does not reside solely with those who bear the sword but with those who direct it. In other words, Paul’s focus here is not on individual actions but rather on power structures.

A careful student of Paul might object to this interpretation by pointing to verse 3, where Paul says that rulers (who control the police) are not a terror to those who engage in good conduct. He states this as a fact. However, given God’s ability to judge nations and rulers for corrupt practices, it’s evident that Paul is talking about an ideal. His mandate to “do what is good” presupposes that rulers themselves are discerning the difference between right conduct and wrong conduct. That presupposition is key.

Clearly, Paul knows that some rulers are a terror to those who are good. His study of Pharaoh in chapter 9 makes that manifest. In chapter 13, Paul goes on to outline rulers’ responsibilities without directly addressing the problem of evil rulers. In this larger context, we are free to fill in the gap with his reference to Egypt and the wider biblical account.

What, then, does Paul’s focus on power structures mean for today? The application seems pretty apparent. In America, we have to face the fact that racism has been founded on corporate, institutional sin and fueled by the policing power of the state. Over the course of centuries, not decades, our government has crafted laws that were designed to disenfranchise black people. These laws were then enforced by the state’s sword.

By the logic of Paul’s theology, the same government that creates civic structures has a responsibility to discern what is just, undo any injustices, and right the wrongs of the system. It also follows that we as Christian citizens have a civic duty to hold these rulers or elected officials responsible for the actions of their agents or officers.

Paul’s view of policing grows too out of a Christian theology of persons. This theology reminds us that God is our maker, and the state is only a steward or caretaker. It did not create us, and it does not own or define us. With that in mind, we are being the Christians God calls us to be when we remind the state of the limits of its power.

Taken together in the larger narrative of the Old and New Testaments, Paul’s words point in a clear direction. Yes, he does speak to the Christian’s responsibility to obey the government. That’s fine. We don’t want anarchy. And yes, he invites us to recognize the potential goods of government. But these words on submission come in the context of his broader exhortation, calling governments to justly steward their power.

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Source: Christianity Today