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Defending Police in Garner Case -- Idolatry?

Paul Dean
Paul Dean
2014 10 Dec

So I tweeted this out the other day: “For Christians to defend police in Eric Garner case is idolatrous.” I was appalled that one Christian leader said the choke-hold put on Garner wasn’t enough to kill him as the police are trained to apply just the right amount of pressure – enough pressure to subdue but not kill. Of course, there’s a giant elephant in an 8x8 room: the man actually died. There’s a Greek word for that: idiotes. You can google the translation.

It’s obvious I’m emotional about this tragic death – this travesty of justice. But, to call Christians who defend the police in this case idolatrous? Isn’t that a bit strong? Isn’t that my emotion getting the best of me? That’s what some think and I appreciate their perspective. So I’ve thought about it over the last couple of days and I’ve come to a conclusion: Christians who defend the police in the Garner case – are being idolatrous.

Here’s why. Eric Garner was accused of selling individual cigarettes without charging the outrageously stifling sales-tax the State demands ($5.85 per pack in New York City). (Think about that for a moment. The State gets $5.85 for doing nothing while leaving a one to maybe three dollar margin to be divvied up between the retailers, wholesalers, and tobacco farmers). But I digress. Questions: did the police see Garner selling them? Was he convicted of a crime? The answer to both questions is no. Where is the evidence? Don’t know. Beyond that, let’s say he was selling individual cigarettes. Do you charge sales-tax at a garage sale and pay it to the State? Should you be arrested? Should you be put in a choke-hold if you try to reason with the police? Should we not have a conversation about whether or not we have the right to dispose of personal property as we see fit? If we don’t have that right, then we really don’t have personal property. We have property that is jointly owned by the State. I’m not saying some taxes are not legitimate or necessary. But I am saying that some taxes are onerous and therefore illegitimate. Can you say Boston Tea Party? Here’s the rub though: when you combine burdensome legislation with State power, these kinds of disasters are inevitable. The State has an ever tightening choke-hold on all of us and a biblically informed contribution to the conversation is absolutely critical.

Let’s think a little more about the Garner arrest. At least six agents of the State, the police, surrounded this “dangerous criminal.” Why? Did they need that many? Aren’t there some real criminals they could be chasing down? As Mr. Garner said, he was merely minding his own business. He pleaded with them to simply leave him alone. And rather than do just that; or rather than reason with him; rather than take their time; rather than defuse the tension they created; rather than grab his arms and cuff him (there were six of them); they put a choke hold on him and murdered him. Wait, murder? Am I being emotional again? Yes. Wrongly so? Absolutely not! What if he was guilty (which we don’t really know)? Is that cause for such excessive force? I can’t help but shed tears every time I see the video of that officer slipping up behind Garner and taking him down by the neck. I’ve heard the arguments – “you don’t know what it’s like in a real life and death struggle; you’re not a police officer.” True, but we’re talking about an unarmed man who wasn’t being violent! In this case the police brutally put a choke-hold on this man and took him down in broad daylight. His last words were “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.” Let those words hang in the air for just a minute . . .  

. . . He started out pleading with the police to leave him alone and ended up pleading for his life. And they snuffed it out.

Its murder and just because it was “legal” murder doesn’t make it any less murder. I’ve heard the State’s argument here as well. “The man was sick and shouldn’t have died.” Really? What do you think would happen if it was you who killed Mr. Garner and not the police? You’d be charged and tried for murder. You might be able to plead down to manslaughter but in the end you’d still be convicted. The police here weren’t even indicted.

This case should scare all of us. Someone told me we have to respect the decision of the Grand Jury. You know, I said the same thing after the Grand Jury’s decision on Ferguson. I made the comment that the evidence was poured over and a rational decision was made. That’s what I thought until I read this from Judge Andrew Napolitano. He contends the Grand Jury was manipulated by a Prosecutor who was afraid to seek an indictment. Now none of us are privy to the facts but I don’t distrust Judge Napolitano. My point is that even Grand Juries and Prosecutors need to somehow be held accountable. And no we don’t have to respect bad decisions. Where does it say that in the Scriptures? There’s certainly no way to respect the Grand Jury decision concerning the Garner situation. We believe in the rule of law. So what do we do when Grand Juries or police ignore the law? When they violate the public trust?

That brings me to Christians defending the police in the Garner case. It seems that some are so trusting of the State and/or the police they feel neither can do wrong. That’s called Statism – State-worship – and that’s called idolatry. Did you see the video? The man was standing on the street and the police murdered him. Why aren’t Christians broken-hearted over this? Why aren’t we speaking out? Why aren’t we crying for justice?

The Bible takes a dim view of State power. When Israel demanded a king, the Lord warned them of his tyranny (1 Sam. 8:6f). Further, earthly kingdoms are rival to the Kingdom of God and will all be destroyed (Rev. 11:15) – a process that has already been inaugurated (Dan. 2:44). Our allegiance is to Christ – not the evil State.

Of course Romans 13 has been trotted out – as usual – in defense of the State. We’re told by most that God has given the sword to the State to meet out justice. How many times have we heard “if only Eric Garner hadn’t resisted arrest; the police did what they’re supposed to do?” Please. The police did what they weren’t supposed to do – they were shutting down a man who was modestly trying to survive in an economically oppressive situation. They were stealing from him because the State wanted a cut. Again, it might be “legal” stealing but stealing nonetheless. How would you feel if the police raided your garage sale? Further, was he really resisting arrest? And if so, are we saying it’s okay to kill someone for resisting arrest?  

Now, Romans 13, 1 Pet. 2:11f, and 1 Tim. 2:2 indicate that we Christians should submit to the State for two main reasons: one, for the sake of our witness, and two, so we won’t be harassed by the State. Eric Garner is a case in point for that second reason. But Romans 13 is not a prescription for the way the State should be, after all, we’re talking about Nero-Caesar in that text. Not only was he a merciless persecutor of Christians, he’s identified as the Beast in Revelation (13:18). He and the State are ordained by God the same way Satan is ordained by God. Romans 13 is not prescriptive of the way things should be but descriptive of the way things are. While we submit in the Romans 13 sense, we don’t submit in every case (Ex. 1:17f; Acts 5:29; Heb. 11:31; Jas. 2:25). Romans 13 doesn’t say the State is righteous or always right; it only says the State is God’s servant in that God uses the State for our good – not for our civil good but for our spiritual good – in the Rom. 8:28f sense – just as He uses all things for our good whether good or evil in a circumstantial sense.

One last thing: I don’t know if the Garner murder was racially motivated or not. That’s not my point. Nor am I tax-protester in the formal sense. My point is that the State is evil and we better not worship it. To do so is idolatry. We can admit when it’s right and we give honor to whom honor is due. But we also have to point out when it’s wrong. And in the Garner case, tragically, it was dead wrong.  

Check out Dr. Dean’s new e-book “Naked and Unashamed: Liberating Sex from Cultural Captivity”. You can also follow him on Twitter: @pauldeanjr.