The police department that wrongly shot Breonna Taylor dead in her own apartment in 2020 had trained its officers just three years earlier that they are avengers who carry out “God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.”
New reporting by the Louisville, Ky., independent newspaper LEO documents that in 2017 Louisville Metro Police applied a Bible verse to a mandatory firearms training class. The verse from Romans 13:4 was superimposed over a “thin blue line” flag as the final image in the training slideshow.
Federal law prohibits the advancement of one religious ideology over others, which generally means government bodies may not use religious texts in their training, especially not as a justification for their work.
Not only is this a violation of the principles of church-state separation, it also illustrates a dangerous trend associating policing with a divine mandate, according to Aaron Griffith, assistant professor of history at Whitworth University and author of God’s Law and Order: The Politics of Punishment in Evangelical America. Griffith also serves as a Public Fellow with Public Religion Research Institute.
Writing for the website Religion & Politics, Griffith says the Louisville training “mirrors other forms of Christian influence in modern American law enforcement such as police-themed Bibles, Christian police retreats and trainings, and similar blue-hued religious emblems. Critics have argued that this influence represents a threat to the separation of church and state. For police ministries and Christian supporters, however, the linkage of faith and policing serves to offer officers a sense of divine purpose in the face of trauma and criticism. But this connection also threatens to obscure problems in the profession, bolster the power of the police, and foreclose other possibilities for addressing America’s social problems and inequalities.”
The Bible verse in question says: “For he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.”
This verse appears in a writing attributed to the Apostle Paul, who was speaking to early Christians living within the Roman Empire, urging them to accept even the Roman overlords as authorities “instituted by God.”
The LEO article quotes Andrew Whitehead, associate professor of sociology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, as saying: “The messaging conveyed by using the verse in the training has potentially dangerous consequences. It just seems really dangerous to kind of inculcate this idea that they are agents of God and God’s wrath. As citizens, that’s worrisome with what we’ve seen in the past with policing.
“If there are police officers that see themselves as agents of God’s wrath, will they be more likely to turn to violence in a situation rather than not? I think those are questions that should be asked by them and hopefully other citizens,” said Whitehead, co-author of Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States.
Promoting law enforcement as agents of God’s wrath sounds especially threatening to people of color, who data show disproportionately are stopped by police, mistreated by police and shot by police.
Bruce Williams, senior pastor at Bates Memorial Baptist Church in the Smoketown community of Louisville, told LEO he finds use of the verse by Louisville police an example of “weaponizing scriptures.”
“It’s more evidence of what’s kind of in the DNA of America,” he said. “And that is a history of weaponizing scriptures to justify violence sometimes and damnable ends.”
How else this Bible verse might have been used in this or prior training events is not clear. A Louisville Metro Police Department spokesperson declined to comment to LEO.
“Police trainers would do better to quote John the Baptist in training,” said Chris Sanders, a Louisville attorney and lifelong Baptist. “Soldiers, the law enforcement of their time, came to John, anxious about their souls. Scripture says, ‘Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ And John said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’ Wouldn’t that be a better message to deliver to new recruits about community policing?”
PRRI polling from 2021 found that white Americans are much more likely than Americans who identify as another race to say that killings of African Americans by police are isolated incidents rather than part of a pattern of how police treat African Americans. White Americans are three times more likely than Black Americans to dismiss these as isolated incidents.
The group most likely to see police violence against Black citizens as isolated incidents is Republicans who trust far-right media outlets (91%) and Fox News (88%) most for television news.
Research by the Washington Post shows police are known to have shot and killed 1,055 people nationwide in 2021, the highest rate since tracking began in 2015.
The nonprofit group Mapping Police Violence says Black people accounted for 27% of those fatally shot and killed by police in 2021, even though Blacks represent only 13% of the U.S. population. The group says Black citizens are twice as likely as white citizens to be shot and killed by police officers.
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