When I was nineteen and fresh out of high school, I signed a contract with the Singapore Police Force that sealed the next ten years of my life. I agreed to serve as a police officer in Singapore for at least six years after I graduated from college; in return, the Police would financially sponsor four years of my education in America. It made complete sense to me. I really wanted to be a police officer, and it meant I would be able to attend college with job security, without worrying about recruiting, internships, and other job-related stresses that plague college students.

 

People warned me, however, that this might not be the best idea – over the next four years, I would be attending college in the land of opportunity and would be exposed to possibilities I never knew existed. Would I still want to be a police officer for six years after leaving Harvard? What made me so confident that, as a nineteen-year-old, I was mature enough to know my future vocation?

 

Now, on the precipice of graduation, I am still grateful I made that decision four years ago. Indeed, even in the wake of the negative publicity that American police have recently received, I am still confident that this is the right vocation for me, that this is still where I would like to serve for as much of my life as possible. And I think the reason why this has not changed, why my certainty of my vocation in the police has only increased, if anything, is that my sense of calling to the police force has always been motivated by my other major vocation in life, a vocation that has only been strengthened throughout college – my vocation as a Christian.

The link between Christianity and law enforcement may not be very apparent, especially in light of some of Jesus’ recorded teachings and experiences. Didn’t Jesus always condemn the use of force, telling Peter to keep his sword when he was accosted (Mt 26:51-52)? Doesn’t Jesus disapprove of a system of retributive justice in which an eye was to be demanded for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth (Mt 5:38-39)? More significantly, as levelled by liberation theologians such as Mark Lewis Taylor, the very notion of a police department (and the way that the criminal justice system is structured today) goes against the revolutionary, anti-imperial effort that Jesus Christ fought for all his life (and eventually also literally with his life).[1] Jesus fought against a police state, in which the Roman Empire used the police to subjugate and oppress the non-elite, and Jesus was executed by the police of the day. Some of the most well-known Christian revolutionaries in modern history have also been persecuted by police – Martin Luther King, Jr., Dietrich Bonhoeffer (by the Nazis), Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (by the Soviets), to name a few.[2]

 

According to Taylor, and other Christian thinkers such as human rights lawyer John Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute, the police force is the manifestation of a system of oppression that Christians are obligated to fight against. The fact that Jesus was a rebel who led one of the earliest recorded movements of civil disobedience provides a blueprint for anti-imperialism that followers of Jesus should emulate.[3] At the very least, as described by French philosopher and Christian anarchist Jacques Ellul, Christianity can never harmonize with the secular state, or with the instruments by which the state acts. For example, a police officer (at least, those not partial to bribery) cannot take someone who broke the law, and forgive him or her with just a charge to “go and sin no more,” like what Jesus did for the prostitute in John 8:11. As a result, Christians involved in law enforcement “may find these kinds of situations extremely difficult… [Because] there can never be a Christian way of accusing.”[4]

These apparent conflicts are significant, and indeed, many of them may deserve fuller theological discussion than I can give in this reflection. However, these issues have never troubled me in reconciling two of my primary vocations in life, because while police officers do have a responsibility to exert control, the police force I know and the police force that I have seen is primarily about defense — about defending the oppressed and poor. While police officers do carry weapons and are trained to use them, at each of my training sessions in unarmed close combat, we are constantly trained to think about force in terms of its proportionality to the danger present, and to resort to deadly force only as a very last resort. The way that force is to be used by police officers, as I have been trained, is only as defense and as a means of restraint and protection – never to attack or hurt. While Christianity is against simple “eye-for-an-eye” retributive justice, Jesus was never against justice in itself. In fact, Jesus Christ came onto the earth arguably to fulfill divine justice.[5] More importantly, Paul writes in the Epistle to the Romans that earthly authorities are “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! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.”[6] While this mandate can easily be used to justify many abuses, it is also clear that earthly authorities can be used as divine agents to mediate peace, order and justice on the earth. As far as the earthly authorities are upright and are acting for the good of the people, agents of law enforcement can have tremendous potential as forces for protection, rather than oppression. Like any form of power, police powers can be used to heal or hurt, restore or repress; if used well, the police can do tremendous good in society.

Most significantly, although Jesus did teach his followers to always forgive others and arguably to avoid bearing arms to defend themselves, there is a difference between holding someone responsible for the wrong that was done to oneself (i.e., bearing a grudge), and holding someone responsible for the wrong that was done to another. Framed in the context of protecting others as opposed to defending one’s individual self-interest, arresting people for wrongdoing and even using force seems much less problematic. As a Christian police officer, I can forgive people for the wrong they may do against me, but I cannot act on the behalf of a victim to forgive the person who has hurt him or her – it is right, as a Christian, for me to “seek justice, rescue the oppressed, [and] defend the orphan.”[7] Just as Jesus’ inauguration of the kingdom of God did not involve the establishment of a new earthly state, but a new order in the lives of individual Christians and their communities, the radical forgiveness that Jesus prescribed was arguably a doctrine governing personal relationships, not a law book to define societal functioning on earth.

Indeed, the police can do a great deal of good, and this promise has continually reinforced my conviction to live out my Christian values as a police officer. First, police officers are in a unique position to protect those who cannot protect themselves. We may all desire to help others, and to defend the poor and oppressed and helpless, but no profession is specifically charged with the responsibility and equipped with the power to do so like the police is. People only (usually) call the police when they need help, and are looking towards the authorities to help them do something they cannot do themselves. For example, when a 911 call is made by someone in fear of her drunk ex-husband at her door, armed with a beer bottle, threatening to beat her and her children up, the caller has placed her hope in the fact that the police will be able to – and is equipped to – protect her and her children in a way that she herself cannot. The police is specifically poised and commissioned to uphold the integrity of the community,[8] to protect and defend people,[9] and to uphold human dignity and human rights,[10] paralleling the Christian responsibility to “give justice to the weak and the orphan, [to] maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute… [To] Rescue the weak and the needy [and to] deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”[11] Should Christians, then, vacate one of the only earthly institutions commissioned to this very calling, leaving the duty to be fulfilled only by non-Christians?

Arising from this, police officers are also in regular contact with people at their lowest state, because people only usually interact with the police when they have done something wrong, or when something wrong has been done to them. Few other vocations bring someone in touch with broken and hurting people as regularly as policing does, and in this way, few other vocations provide potential for restoration and healing as policing does. At a scene of hurt, police officers are often the first to arrive. When someone who has broken the law is faced with the reality of his or her impending punishment, police officers are present. Police officers are well-positioned to be the agents by which exploitation and oppression are lifted from the exploited and oppressed, and I have seen this happen enough to be convinced of its power. As a colleague of mine in the Singapore Police once wisely put it, police officers form the last net of society to catch people who have fallen through all the other nets – it is those who come out at the bottom of the heap whom police officers regularly interact with. How police officers act, then, in discharging their duties can powerfully influence the direction of the peripeteia in these people’s lives.

Finally, perhaps most personally and convincingly to me, the police officer serves the community not by helping people for what they are, but for who they are. Police officers do not interact with people as investors, or as stakeholders in a project, or as members of the labor force, or as consumers or clients; police officers have a responsibility to help all people in a society regardless of profession, social class, ethnicity, religion, or gender. When police officers are called to a scene, they do so and respond to people simply as people, interacting with them at the foundation of their humanity. There is no expectation of reward for each additional person helped, because helping people is not something that rests on monetary incentive. When someone calls for help, it matters not whether they be rich or poor, young or old, or even whether they have been arrested before or not. Police officers rush to the scene to help, not for some monetary incentive, but because people have called for help. And I have found few other professions that embody the idea of dignity for all humanity (cf. Gen 1:27, Gen 9:6), regardless of station in life, like the police force.

 

The situations I have described above are ideals, and sometimes (even often) fall short of the reality that we see in the world today. Looking upon the sin and error endemic in society, one might even be tempted to discard hope for many of the institutions that have promised hope, but have not always delivered. However, my Christian faith inspires me towards policing because it sheds light on what policing could be, even if it does not always manifest itself in this way today. And I believe that this should always form the basis of our motivations, vocation-wise — that we look towards what can be and should be, rather than what is, or has been.

 

[1] Taylor, Executed God, 133

[2] Whitehead, 2014

[3] Whitehead, 2014

[4] Ellul, Rich and Poor, 136

[5] According to the Penal Substitution view of Christian atonement, Jesus’ death on the cross was efficacious in propitiating the sins of mankind because it fulfilled the divine requirement that a price be paid for wrongdoing, and blood be shed for sin. Jesus’ death paid this price, fulfilled divine justice, and allowed the sinful may be reconciled to the sinless God.

[6] Rom 13:4, NRSV

[7] Isa 1:17, NRSV

[8] for example, as in the Law Enforcement Oath of Honor by the International Association of Chiefs of Police

[9] for example, as in the Constitution of the Singapore Police Force, accessible at http://statutes.agc.gov.sg (under Chapter 235)

[10] for example, as in the police oaths of the United Kingdom and Ireland, and in the Guide to Ethical Decision Making by the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, for use in training of law enforcement officers.

[11] Ps 82:3-4, NRSV. Similar notions of the Christian obligation to those who are helpless and destitute are found in Isa 1:17 and Ps 146:9.

Shaun Lim ’15, an alumnus of the Ichthus, is currently pursuing a Masters degree in Criminology at the University of Pennsylvania.