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

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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David Gushee

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  • Given that Paul’s death was not the only injustice he suffered at the hands of government officials, if he was going to amend his words to say how the government should ideally act,, he would have done so from the outset. Paul, though, lived in an oppressive government. The witness of Paul’s fellow Christians being persecuted for doing good was a huge tool the Spirit used to grow the church so quickly. It is still a significant tool and reason the underground church around the world thrives today, because suffering for doing good is authentic and attractive beyond our fears.
    Injustice exists in government, and in a representative government where the people have a voice, we have a responsibility to stand against injustice, as the fathers of my denomination did in the fight against slavery.

  • Contrary to the implication of this article, the shooting of Castile itself was not caught on video. What is captured is a police officer saying, “I told him not to reach for it.” This calls into question your unobjective, sympathetic rendition of the facts so far. The facts so far in both shootings are not completely determined yet. How about holding off on bearing false witness until that happens?

  • The problem with the American police shootings is the rules of engagement that police have. Any perceived danger and they can execute citizens at will. This obviously is not tolerable, they are not the army, they are not at war. Unless there is an actual deadly attack attempt on them were self-defense is justified, then they are plain murdering citizens.

    It’s time for a change in the way we police. I think our president needs to do more to stop this. Don’t get me wrong – I think Obama is doing a great job in office.

    RECORD unemployment numbers, legalized gay marriage, 5% growth, best year for jobs since 1999, consumer confidence up, deficit down 60% in 2014, gas prices low, health insurance cheaper than ever ($85/month), car insurance cheaper than ever ($25/month from Insurance Panda), the 1% starting to be taxed more; all while republicans bleated about Benghazi… but when it comes to policing and race, I think Obama could be doing more!

    The US political system is broken, dysfunctional and corrupt, so not help there. It will take a hero lawyer to challenge the notions of ‘self-defense’ to bring this genocide to an end.

  • Maybe stop conflating the writings of Roman theologians with religious scriptures…

  • A correction to the writer’s description of the officer who shot Phil the driver: he was not “white”, despite not being shown on the video Ms. Reynolds describes him near the end of her video as “the Chinese” officer. This is not mean to be about race as much as it is about police brutality and lack of discipline.

  • In the video, Ms. Reynolds stated that the police officer who shot Mr. Castile was “Chinese.”

  • 60 people got shot, 9 of them fatally, in Chicago over this past July 4 weekend. No protests, no big media headlines. No made-for-TV #BlackLivesMatter uprisings. Nothing.

    This is not to turn a blind eye to the recent and terrible police shootings, involving victims Castile and Sterling. They’re getting plenty of national air-time and discussion, and certainly not without reason.

    But I gotta say this: if somebody is going to call for a national “stand-down” of police, somebody better call for (and enforce) a national “stand-down” on the CROOKS too, for the very same period of time. Maybe also give the CROOKS some training on not using excessive force on people, yes?

    As for Romans 13:1-7, just take it or leave it. Shoot, if you don’t believe the Bible, just dump it all and forget about calling yourself a Christian.

  • It’s not just crooks, it’s accidents and suicides too. If we are truly pro-life, we should be working towards ending gun violence and the trivialization of life.

  • He had told the officer he had a gun, and where it was. He was following the officer’s order to produce his license. It might be true that the situations need further investigation; it is also true that police officers are very quick on the trigger, even when they are in no way threatened. Too many people are dying at the hands of police, and it needs to be addressed.

    And before you complain that I’m against the police, my boyfriend is a police officer. I know what they face every day. I also know there are a LOT of bad apples.

  • Professor Gushee, I am disappointed at your quick judgement. First, as a law enforcement officer, I find your jump to conclusions significantly flawed and unfair. You do not know the facts of the case. You only have one side of the story. Although terrible when anyone dies in such a way, the investigation is still on-going. Second, your call to “resist” is ambiguous. In what way? Physical? Violent? Passive aggressive? Your use of the phrase “with every fiber of our being” sounds like physical confrontation. Also, you need to define the word “terrorize.” Your ambiguity can cause good people with good intentions to make things worse! Third, you have no idea what law enforcement officers experience with violent people every shift. I challenge you to go do a ride-along in Zone 2 in Atlanta. I’d love to hear your thoughts after that experience. Finally, a “stand-down”? And how would there be law enforcement? “Hey, everyone. We are going to stand-down all law enforcement for the next few months or so. Y’all behave, now, you hear?” Sigh…

  • I agree with you to an extent. The first two sentences may be correct, as of this morning (Eastern time) they were not yet determined.
    I’m also someone all too aware of the “bad apples” but it’s more complicated than that. We need to find ways of having officers stop resorting to deadly force in these kinds of situations, especially when race is an issue.

  • What precisely do you mean here? I’m not being snarky, I’d just like a little more background behind your comment.

  • Professor Gushee, the events in Dallas are exactly what I was talking about below. I’d love to here your liberal excuse for Dallas.

  • It has been established that the officer who shot Mr. Castile was not white. I hope the author will correct the article.

  • I used to think that David Gushee was a careful student of the Bible.
    Sadly, this article is further evidence that he is allowing progressive
    politics to color his understanding of Scripture. How could anyone who knows anything about Biblical times suggest that Paul thought that the Roman government was perfectly just? This is the government that executed Jesus! It’s the government that threw him into jail at Philippi without cause.

    The testimony of the apostles is to speak the truth, including to governmental officials, but at the same time to respect their authority. It is not disrespectful to hold the authorities accountable to the laws that they serve under; Paul showed that in his dealings with the Philippian officials, with Felix & Agrippa, and in other contexts. But to suggest that Paul would have rewritten his words based on a knowledge of his own execution is to deny the authority of the words he wrote, to hold that it is not God-breathed and trustworthy. I thought Gushee was an evangelical; if he was, he is no longer.

    The apparent facts surrounding the Philando Castile case are extremely troubling. I say “apparent” because it is unfortunately the case that in many similar situations, further investigation has significantly changed the story (Michael Brown didn’t have his hands up, for instance). But a police officer should know how to deal peacefully with a non-belligerent person who has informed him of the presence of a (legal) weapon. It is right to protest a failure to do so, and to demand that those who fail to protect the public (including the person who was stopped) in such situations be held accountable. But to suggest that this incident is a reason to “stand down” the entire police force of the nation, and to resist all law enforcement “with every fiber of your being,” is irresponsible in the extreme and totally contrary to the witness of Scripture.

  • That if people didn’t think of the writings of a Roman theologian, this one verse discussed in the article among them, with the same reverence and authority usually reserved for prophets of God, then this would perhaps not be a problem.

    Paul was a human and humans can err. His idea that one should show deference towards a government should be interpreted with that in mind, and judged on its own merits rather than have to it ascribed divine status as a scripture. The man himself was executed by a tyrannical governing body, as was the founder of the Christian religion, so there is plenty of room for his writings, especially on this subject, to be incorrect at points.

  • Mr. Castile was wantonly murdered in my state, Minnesota, in a part of town I’m very familiar with, in a situation that is unfortunately familiar too.

    Mr. Castile did not escalate the situation. The cop did that entirely on his own. Mr. Castile was calmly complying with the cop’s directions. He informed the cop that he had a gun and a legal permit for it, as a courtesy to the cop. That’s when the cop panicked, yanked out his gun, and began screaming at Mr. Castile. The cop wanted to see Mr. Castile’s driver’s license.

    Mr. Castile remained calm, agreed and informed the cop he was going to reach for his ID which was in his pocket. He began to slowly reach toward his ID and the cop shot Mr. Castile 4 times.

    Ms. Diamond (Lavish) Reynolds was indeed extremely courageous to begin recording at that time, as Dr. Gushee has indicated.

    Other cops took over for the killer, took him aside, comforted him, reassured him, and took him away from the scene. Ms. Reynolds was handcuffed, forcibly separated from her 4 year old daughter who had witnessed the entire, terribly traumatizing affair from the back seat. Ms. Reynolds was taken into police custody to the station, mugshot, finger printed, and questioned extensively. All the while she knew nothing and was told almost nothing about the welfare of her daughter.

    That particular cop committed murder due to his own panic. His race is irrelevant. That was terrible and fatal policing.

    *Local news has been covering this extensively with numerous interviews of all involved. There has been a great deal of detail, description and explanation. I’ve also read pages of information from the local newspapers and other reliable sources.

  • I’ve found two extremely informative articles regarding police cultural and behavior via Sojourners.

    The first link is to an article written by retired cop Reddit Hudson:
    http://www.vox.com/2015/5/28/8661977/race-police-officer

    This is a link to a FB page for the National Coalition of Law Enforcement Officers for Justice, Reform and Accountability:
    https://www.facebook.com/ncleoj

    A great deal of work needs to be done within the police communities about their behavior and how they interact with the public, especially those who are not white.

  • ” …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. “

  • Well, regarding Paul’s writings as a conflation doesn’t quite work since they are in fact recognized by Christians as scriptures. Certainly under “normal” circumstances compliance with the law and government is generally considered a public good. Still, even amongst Christians, when the operation of the law conflicts with what is understood to be the precepts of the faith, then civil disobedience, if not criminality, is in order. The civil rights marches and activities of the 50’s and 60’s are a prime example.

  • We might also remember that in Revelation, the government is perceived as being in power because of Satan… not God! And resistance to the evil from government is applauded. (Revelation 2:13 and much more)

  • Eh… sorry, my initial post was relying on my own Faith’s definition of Scripture.

    In general, we wouldn’t call Paul’s writings “Scripture”, as that’s a term reserved for writings of prophets.

    Overall, I mean to say there should be a greater understanding between the difference between the writings of Paul and other writings in the Bible, and generally understand not all are of the same degree in authority.

  • Sir, you state that “It is not disrespectful to hold the authorities accountable to the laws that they serve under”. What if the laws they serve under are unjust? That is what the author was saying I believe. The civil rights movement of the late 50’s and early 60’s was protesting unjust laws concerning segregation, education, and voting rights. So how could you hold people accountable locally if the locals laws were wrong? You make equal assumptions of what “resisting” is. If you
    apply what you have said concerning submission to government then this country shouldn’t have exisited. We resisted British rule peacefully until they were no longer peaceful. Coincidentally, one of the first protesters killed at the Boston massacre was Crispus Attucks a Black and native American man. I wonder if you apply the same logic and hermeneutics when examining the birth of this country.

  • Thanks for the clarification. I guess I would politely disagree about the degree of authority with respect to biblical writings. I view everything from Genesis to Revelation of equal authority. Some would see a contradiction in that given the historical divide between Christians and the Jewish people. Traditionally orthodox Christianity has viewed the New Testament as an extension of the truths revealed in the Old Testament. Peace.

  • In the first place, the situation for Sterling and Castile was not a matter of unjust laws; it was violation of the laws by police officers. A badge is not a license to kill; it is authorization to use deadly force ONLY in specific circumstances when someone is endangered. And it right to hold the officers accountable for those violations (and to protest when the government fails to do so).

    The question of unjust laws is a separate, and challenging, one. On the one hand, Peter says in Acts 5:29, “We must obey God rather than men!” On the other, the New Testament knows no support for violent overthrow of a government, though Roman rule certainly was not based on “consent of the governed” and was often unjust and arbitrary in its treatment, particularly of non-citizens. (Remember Jesus’ comment about going the second mile in Matthew 5:41; that was a reference to governmental conscription.) Full consideration of the issues can’t be put on a bumper sticker, or even in a comment section like this. I will just note, though, that the American Revolutionary War was not a case of random, self-appointed militant resisters, but of local (representative) governments resisting their overlords. There’s a difference between that and a John Brown-style rebellion. At the same time, I will say that I think the Stauffenberg plot to assassinate Hitler was justified.

    But my fundamental point is that we need not (and should not) rewrite the Bible to justify bringing trigger-happy police under control; we have the Biblical and legal warrant to do that already. And I’m saddened that Prof. Gushee has lost his theological anchor to the Scriptures, so that he feels justified in rewriting them. But I’m also grieved by the recurrent demonstrations that non-white citizens are not always treated equally or fairly by our government.

  • Who is the “we” who wouldn’t call Paul’s writings “Scripture”? Paul claims direct revelation and commissioning from God as his authority to speak/write. The Christian church has historically recognized Paul’s writings, and those of other apostles, as equal in authority to the Hebrew prophets and the writers of the Gospels recording the words of Jesus. While Paul had Roman citizenship, I think it’s misleading to refer to him as a “Roman theologian;” he was clearly Jewish in both ethnicity and theology.

  • I specifically was thinking of the profiling that occurred in the police stop. Recently released recordings of the officer calling in the stop showed that he profiled Mr. Castile. As for Mr. Gushee, I can’t speak as much to his standing. I have read somethings that he has changed his position on that I would agree are not biblical.

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