When we reflect on clerical abuse of power, a few things come to my mind. The first is that these are terrible sins, committed by people imbued with incredible authority by the people that they serve. The second is that there are other terrible sins by the system, where others ignore the abuse or, even worse, try to cover it up or justify it. All of this is wrapped up in the fact that there's more good priests than bad, more good to the church than evil. This does not mean we get to ignore the evil; quite the contrary. Instead, this means we must directly address the evil. We must remove people from power who can't be trusted with the authority they're given, We must admit the fault both of the individual and the system. We must use the good we're capable of to repent, and furthermore, to transform the system such that others won't suffer the same abuses again.
In the previous paragraph, we could replace the words priest, pastor, church, clerical, and any of their other associated terms with the word police, and the story would remain true. There are some police who've abused their power, particularly in relation to excessive use of force. The recent shooting of Charles Kinsey is only a recent testimony in the tales of Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, and so many others. These deadly situations happen disproportionately more often to black men than other segments of the population. Just as any other citizen, when police officers use excessive force that injures or ends life, they deserve to be held accountable.
I've a number of family members in the law enforcement community, and many more family friends beyond those. I'm certain they expect me, as a pastor, to do my job without abusing the people under my care. That's a fair and just expectation, and if that's the case, More directly, I want them to expect that of me. I have the same expectation of them, and everyone who chooses the vocation of law enforcement. When pastors and members of law enforcement enter their vocations, each make a promise to "never betray...the public trust" or "care for God's people and...do not betray their confidence." Now, I do not pretend that my job entails the same risks as those of a police officer. I'm not naive enough to believe that or make that comparison. What I am saying is that, in very different but complementary ways, pastors and police officers are called to vocations of public trust and public care.
Let's be clear on that. Law enforcement is a vocation. We need police officers who care about the entire community, who seek safety of all those under their care, who serve and protect. The work of social justice is better served by police that also want justice. Many, many officers want that and police their communities with that desire at the forefront. When the actions of others work against that, the appropriate response isn't to angrily condemn all police, nor is it to blindly support all police. It's to recognize that mistakes are made, that justice means removing some people from authority and addressing the issues in the system that work to protect bad officers instead of ensuring justice for the community.
We live in a world today where positions of authority no longer receive automatic respect. Pastors, police officers, soldiers, teachers, politicians, truly any public figure, must earn the respect of those that we serve. This, I believe, is a good thing, because it reemphasizes the importance of integrity within each of these vocations. Some people simply aren't suited for these positions of public service, whether by their temperament, ability, or prejudice. Rather than assume that someone deserves trust because they wear a clerical collar or a badge, instead we now must learn who our people are and how we can best serve them. We must be vulnerable with them to earn their trust so that, when the time comes, we make decisions that align with the promises made at the time of our commissioning. In other words, to redeem our churches and our departments, it does not behoove us to decry, "not all of us are bad" or worse, "there's no problem to see here," or even worse, "the rules that apply to you don't apply to us." Instead, we must work diligently to redeem our professions and to restore the public trust. In other words, we must purge from our ranks both the people who cause such irreparable harm within our communities and eradicate the systemic dysfunction that allows such abuses of power to exist in the first place.
My point, and perhaps my plea, is this. Being committed to good policing and defending the value of black lives aren't mutually exclusive options. The best of policing recognizes this and seeks to foster communities where all lives are seen as valuable, as deserving of the same treatment from authorities, as not just citizens of a community, but as equal members of a human family. Chief Chris Magnus of Richmond, California famously held a Black Lives Matter sign as a testimony to this truth: not that black lives matter more than blue lives or white lives, but because so many black lives have been compromised by our culture, including some bad policing, we must remind everyone that black lives matter just as much as police lives, white lives, and any other life.
Pastors and police officers are called, in different ways, to care for the lives of all in their care. As such, we should have the highest of expectations for one another, demand consequences when we use our power inappropriately, and ensure that our systems work to serve and protect the people we're called to serve. When we expect the best from our public servants, we honor the integrity of their vocation. When we who are in these positions of authority expect the best from one another, we honor not just the office or the badge or the clerical, but we honor the people who took vows to care for their community at all costs. Let's hope, pray, and work for the best out of our cops and our clergy. As we Lutherans know, sometimes that means reform is necessary for people and systems.