Every institution within the United States bears responsibility for confronting and dismantling the structures of systemic racism designed to protect white supremacy. Even as we promote respect for law enforcement, religious communities are called to hold state institutions accountable to this responsibility as we promote the flourishing of all human communities.
There is no more lethal form of violence than the concentration of power in the state; police make up the front-line manifestation of that power. The majority of police officers handle this power with dignity, operating within clear guidelines and procedures.
Recent shootings by police of unarmed Black people in north Texas have prompted a great deal of community grief, reflection, and protest. Religious communities have particular roles in these situations: offering aid and comfort to victims even as we lead efforts to hold authorities accountable to their commitment to serve and protect all persons within their areas of responsibility.
Briarwood Leadership Center—a ministry in mission together with the Northern Texas– Northern Louisiana Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America—offers these reflections for consideration by our communities and others affected by these events. We speak from a perspective informed by our Lutheran heritage that we hope will be helpful for other communities as well.
In the early morning of October 12, 2019, Atatiana Koquice Jefferson was killed inside her home by a Ft. Worth police officer responding to a neighbor’s non-emergency call. Community responses to this incident have been intensified by the recent conviction and sentencing of a former Dallas police officer for the September 6, 2018, killing of Botham Jean, also inside his own home.
Both incidents involved white police officers killing unarmed Black people in their homes. In addition to these unacceptable outcomes, both killings were accompanied by several other irregularities in police procedure. These killings directly contradict the responsibility of the state’s policing authority to serve the best interests of all persons. Both incidents can be understood as specific manifestations of the systemic racism embedded within American law enforcement structures.
Together, we must do all we can to ensure that all are protected and served equally before equal applications of civil law. Racism—both in terms of implicit individual bias and systemic inequality—too often distorts these ideals, bringing irreparable harm to persons of color.
Because of human sinfulness, Lutheran Christians recognize the necessity of law enforcement, even while we recognize the structural shortcomings of government authority. In 1523, Martin Luther wrote a short book titled “Temporal Authority, To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed” (LW 45). There, Luther writes that since “the sword is most beneficial and necessary for the whole world in order to preserve peace, punish sin, and restrain the wicked,” Christians are called to “assist the governing authority” since it is “serviceable and of benefit to others.” Likewise, Luther strongly affirms the vocations of those who serve in government, including police officers, since, again, “the needs of [the] neighbor demand it. For those who punish evil and protect the good are God’s servants” (94, 100).
Luther clearly affirms the vocation of law enforcement while indicating that we do not blindly follow the state. Instead, we believe that it is our duty as citizens and as Christians to critique the state when it oversteps its limits and does not adequately serve the needs of all our neighbors. Public accountability is key. It is good and right, therefore, that people throughout northern Texas raise their collective voice to demand accountability in the form of a) adequate investigation and prosecution of the individual police officer for murder; b) a thorough investigation of the incident as a whole by an authority outside the Ft. Worth Police Department; and c) a thorough review of the training and procedures of all law enforcement bodies throughout north Texas with a special focus on implicit bias and systemic racism.
Lutherans stand for the wellbeing of the neighbor. Although we are the whitest denomination in the United States, we recognize that our neighbors throughout the country, and especially here in Texas, represent a profound witness to God’s love for diversities—racial, ethnic, and otherwise. Our responsibility is to stand for those under threat, especially those threatened by state violence infected with the sin of white supremacy.