This piece was adapted from Russell Moore’s newsletter. Subscribe here.
The nation stands shocked, once again, by a video of horrific violence by police officers against a young Black man beaten to death—this time Tyre Nichols of Memphis.
We instinctively flinch from watching this video because most people with a functioning conscience intuitively know it to be evil. At this moment, Christians should acknowledge not only that the Bible condemns this sort of police behavior but also why.
Whenever a violent revelation like this occurs, some are immediately defensive, saying, “Not all police officers are like this; most are good.” And, of course, that is true; but that truth makes such actions even worse.
That’s why, among those I know, police officers are some of the angriest of everybody at this kind of behavior. They see it in the same way I might view preachers using the Bible to “justify” their financial grifting or sexual predation. I realize what they’re doing and, even further, how awful it is. Good police officers see such horrors the same way.
This killing would be a grave moral evil no matter what group of people carried it out. Tyre Nichols was a human being made in the image of God, and to take his life not only robs his family of their loved one but also assaults his Creator. But the fact that this violence was carried out by those entrusted with maintaining justice perverts the situation even more.
Police brutality is wrong not because the idea of policing is wrong. However one interprets Romans 13, we can all agree the apostle Paul acknowledged the legitimate authority of those charged with keeping order and restraining injustice. Paul recognized this in his own life.
However, when he was unjustly imprisoned, Paul refused to go away quietly, as the police asked. Instead, he challenged them to send a message back to the magistrates for whom they worked: “They beat us publicly without a trial, even though we are Roman citizens, and threw us into prison. And now do they want to get rid of us quietly? No! Let them come themselves and escort us out” (Acts 16:37).
When police officers—or anyone else charged with public responsibility—carry out unjust atrocities, they are misusing power. This is not of incidental concern to the Christian life.
When John the Baptist preached by the Jordan, some of those who repented and got baptized were Roman centurions and tax collectors. Tax collectors were reviled by their fellow Israelites, and for good reason. After all, they collaborated with a pagan empire that occupied a throne that belonged to the house of David by the covenant of God.
When we hear the term tax collectors, we often think in contemporary, bureaucratic accounting terms, like the equivalent of Internal Revenue Service agents. But in the first century, tax collectors were feared for their potential to defraud people and do grave harm. After all, they worked for an empire that displayed its power and bloodthirstiness by crucifying people—especially would-be rebels—and posting their bodies along the roadways.
Not only that, but tax collectors and Roman soldiers often used their given authority to satisfy their own appetites. When they were baptized, they asked John the Baptist, “What should we do?” (Luke 3:12, 14). His response to the repentant taxmen instructed, “Don’t collect any more than you are required to” (v. 13).
And to the soldiers, John said, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay” (v. 14). For both groups, the call to repentance was a call to stop using their authority—and with it the implicit threat of violence—to do wrong.
Jesus did the same when he encountered Zacchaeus, another tax collector who repented and gave back four times the money he’d taken from those he defrauded (Luke 19:8). Jesus also raged when religious authority was used to do the same thing—accusing the officials of turning the temple of God into a “den of robbers” (Matt. 21:13; Mark 11:17; Luke 19:46).
Part of the old life Paul grieved over and left behind on the road to Damascus was his misuse of authority. “On the authority of the chief priests I put many of the Lord’s people in prison, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them,” he said while later on trial for his Christian beliefs. “Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and I tried to force them to blaspheme. I was so obsessed with persecuting them that I even hunted them down in foreign cities” (Acts 26:10–11).
Perhaps this is why Paul was especially sensitive to the fact that the apostolic authority Jesus gave him was “for building you up rather than tearing you down” (2 Cor. 10:8). When authority is perverted, those who are without power are devoured.
In his bookCorruptible: Who Gets Power and How It Changes Us, political scientist Brian Klaas writes that the stakes are high when those with law-enforcement authority cannot be trusted: “Who do you call if your abuser is the police?” The way to deal with these abuses, he argues, is not just through better training and legal accountability—as necessary and important as those are.
Klaas mentions a video that went around of a small-town police department proudly displaying a military-style armored vehicle. The problem wasn’t the technology but the message it communicated to people who might be good police officers, as well as to those who might not be. Most people who see that video, he writes, think This is insane. He continues, “But others watch it and think, ‘Sign me up!’”
Such a show of strength draws people who think of policing as an occupying army at total war with an enemy, as opposed to those who recognize law-enforcement authority as a responsibility to protect and serve their community. The former are the kind of people whose civilian cars bear decals of Marvel’s the Punisher—another symbol of violent vigilantism that is totally at odds with the vocation of law enforcement.
Maybe even more importantly, Klaas argues that the display of aggressive power in the armored-car video might weed out prospective police officers who have a balanced sense of integrity in authority.
“Departments are thinking too much about how to change the behavior of police officers they already have while thinking too little about the invisible would-be police officers they don’t have,” Klaas writes. “To fix policing, we need to focus less on those who are already in uniform, and more on those who’ve never considered putting one on.”
The unhinged violence we watched in that video from Memphis is immoral and unjust beyond words. It’s made worse by the fact that those carrying out such evil aren’t hiding from the authority meant to restrain them. Instead, they are using that very authority to carry out these atrocities. Our consciences know this is wrong, and the Bible says so too.
Russell Moore is the editor in chief and leads the Public Theology Project at Christianity Today.