Why Alton Sterling and Philando Castile might reject a beloved biblical passage

(RNS) When government authorities terrorize the innocent, we must resist them with every fiber of our being.

A community member holds up a Bible during a vigil in memory of Alton Sterling, who was shot dead by police at the Triple S Food Mart in Baton Rouge, La., on July 6, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Jeffrey Dubinsky
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-GUSHEE-OPED, originally transmitted on July 7, 2016.

(RNS) Christians love to cite a biblical passage that suggests people should not be afraid of authorities.

“Rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad,” Romans 13:1-7.

It makes sense, doesn’t it? Government authorities, such as police officers, are public servants. They are frightening only to those who do wrong. Those of us who don’t do wrong need not be afraid.

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 Wednesday (July 6) when he was gunned down near St. Paul, Minn.

The late Alton Sterling did not find it to be the case when he was fatally shot on Tuesday in Baton Rouge, La.

These black men are two of 136 black Americans killed by police so far in 2016, out of a total of 561 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 the white police officer who just shot Castile 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 the officer when he spotted it. Castile then attempted 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 do 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 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.

Some kind of mandatory stand-down period is needed for our nation’s police forces, accompanied by substantial retraining, and early retirement or dismissal of any and all police officers found to have used excessive force.

Leadership for this effort needs to be provided by the U.S. 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.

(David Gushee is Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University. He writes the RNS column “Christians, Conflict and Change.”)

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