Peace Cops?

Three years ago the United States invaded Iraq and quickly toppled the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein. The Bush administration justified this act as part of the “war on terrorism,” claiming that the Iraqi government both conspired with al Qaeda, which had attacked the U.S. nearly two years earlier, and posed an imminent threat via weapons of mass destruction. To date, neither of these allegations has been sustained, and the real mastermind behind the terrorist attacks, Osama bin Laden, remains at large.

In the aftermath of 9/11, a number of Christian peacemakers raised questions about the appropriateness of a “war” approach to dealing with terrorism. These concerns appear now to be spot-on. Of course, such criticisms of war can be expected from those Christians who seek to follow nonviolently the biblical call to work for justice and peace. But some prominent proponents of Christian nonviolence have considered supporting the specific alternative of a “police” approach to dealing with terrorists. As a Christian ethicist with previous experience in law enforcement, I find this curious—because little prior work has been done to explore what such a model might look like and entail, especially with regard to the use of force.

In the January-February 2002 issue of Sojourners, Jim Wallis labeled the terrorist attacks a “crime against humanity” rather than an act of war and suggested exploring a “global police,” rather than war, as a means of defending innocent lives and preventing future threats. Similarly, Christian theologian Stanley Hauerwas, in a November 2001 interview with Wallis, indicated that he “would certainly like to start envisioning the possibility of that kind of police force,” because such an operation would be a less violent option than war.

Writing in America in July 2003, moral theologian Gerald Schlabach observed that a number of peacemaking practitioners among the historic peace churches “affirm international rule of law as the best framework for responding to terrorism. And that implies international law enforcement mechanisms—that is, policing.” In addition to already existing international law and courts, a global police force is needed to find, stop, and apprehend terrorists. Schlabach advocates “just policing” as an approach to dealing with terrorism and a possible bridge between Christians of pacifist and just-war persuasions.

But Wallis correctly recognizes that international policing to protect the innocent, prevent terrorist attacks, and apprehend terrorists “involves using some kind of force,” posing a serious problem “for those of us committed to nonviolent solutions.” Because lethal force may be necessary if, for instance, bin Laden refuses to surrender without a fight, Hauerwas would stop short of supporting a police approach that required him to “carry a gun.”

I CAN RELATE. When I was 19 and trying to pay for college, I applied for job openings at local law enforcement agencies. As a practicing Christian, I wrestled with the question of whether I could use lethal force in the performance of my duties. After I was hired, working initially in corrections and later in policing, this question lingered.

My struggle arose because I found it difficult to imagine Jesus killing anyone. Jesus instructed his followers to love their neighbors, and in the Sermon on the Mount and the parable of the Good Samaritan he recast enemies as neighbors. Moreover, Jesus modeled such nonviolent love in the face of persecution, visibly demonstrating how God deals with evil: Jesus laid down his life for others, including his own executioners.

I also knew the Decalogue’s commandment “You shall not kill,” but I was not sure how to interpret or apply it. Some English translations of the Bible instead say, “You shall not murder.” Is this a general prohibition against all forms of killing? Or does it allow for justified exceptions, such as capital punishment, self defense, just war, and policing?

I was aware of other places where killing was seemingly ordered by God, such as when the Israelites conquered Canaan and took no prisoners, making no distinction between combatants and noncombatants. And Paul notes in Romans 13 the divinely ordained role of government, symbolized by “the sword,” to maintain law and order, though the apostle never suggests that Christians may participate in such a capacity.

Put simply, as a young Christian I believed I was compelled to follow the overall biblical call to work for justice and peace, but I was not sure how to do so. Could I “serve and protect” others through policing? Was I permitted to use force, including perhaps lethal force? If so, when and how?

OVER THE CENTURIES, Christians have developed several approaches to the ethics of the use of force, the two primary examples being pacifism and the just-war tradition. However, few Christian ethicists have given significant attention to the subject of policing. This is surprising, given that many Christians in our churches wear badges and face such life-and-death questions regularly for a living.

To simply call for a police approach is not enough; we need also to examine the ethical implications of the various ways in which this might play out. Incidents such as the Rodney King beating of 1991 remind us that not all policing is just policing. Police brutality and excessive force cannot be what a Christian peacemaker has in mind when suggesting the extension of a police approach from the domestic to the international sphere.

General calls for a police approach beg the question of what model of policing is most congruent with just policing. Only in recent decades have criminologists begun to examine police ethics in general and the use of force in particular. In The Ethics of Policing, John Kleinig identifies several models of policing that are currently circulating among criminologists, along with their correlative perspectives on the use of force.

At opposite ends of the spectrum are the “crime fighter” and “social peacekeeper” models. The former is the primary model of policing that developed in the United States during much of the 20th century. It is often referred to as the “military model,” language reflected by the recent politicians’ mantra of fighting a “war on crime.” Indeed, when cops speak of “real” police work, many have crime fighting in mind—as do the film industry and much of the American public.

Within this paradigm, the use of coercive force is the raison d’être of policing, as reflected in everything from institutional organization (sergeants, lieutenants, etc.) to equipment (uniforms, helmets, semi-automatic rifles, tear gas, flash grenades, etc.).

This model can encourage an us vs. them attitude, which is why a growing number of criminologists warn that the crime-fighter model of policing may be the soil from which sprout the seeds of police brutality and excessive force. Everyone is viewed as a potential enemy, making it easier, as Paul Chevigny argues in Edge of the Knife: Police Violence in the Americas, for police “to abuse those who are the enemy, easier even to kill or torture them.” It is therefore hard for peacemaking Christians to support this model of policing, either domestically or internationally.


WHILE THE CRIME-FIGHTER model is prevalent in the United States, the social peacekeeper model is more in line with the historical roots of policing in England and the United States. This model highlights numerous services that police perform in their communities—intervening in domestic disputes, helping injured accident victims, assisting people with mental illnesses, finding runaways, searching for lost children, informing people of the deaths of loved ones, directing traffic, and stopping suicide attempts. Police in fact spend most of their time performing these kinds of activities rather than forcefully fighting criminals.

Kleinig details recent community policing efforts that take this approach. In community policing, police and citizens cooperate as partners. They seek to prevent crime by addressing its root causes through problem solving, an emphasis echoed by policing since its inception centuries ago. The social peacekeeper model also encourages developing less-than-lethal means for apprehending alleged perpetrators. Peacemaking Christians, with their emphasis on nonviolent conflict resolution, should be able to support this type of policing domestically and globally.

Even in this model, the possibility remains that force will be required to protect innocent lives and apprehend offenders. But, situated within a social peacekeeping framework, force is an instrument of last resort, rather than the essence of policing. Kleinig points this out and suggests that had the L.A. police officers involved in the King beating understood themselves “primarily as social peacekeepers, for whom recourse to force constituted a last and regrettable option, events would almost certainly have turned out very differently.”

On an international scale, even if war is outlawed there will be a need for some sort of global police to enforce this law. This too might require the use of force—including lethal force—if a rogue nation or terrorist group breaks the law against war. While peacemaking Christians might support the social peacekeeper model of policing, complete pacifists would probably draw a line at participation in such policing, since it continues to involve the use of force.

CLEARLY THERE EXISTS among peacemaking Christians the potential for a wide range of views of policing. Absolute pacifists reject all policing along with war. Other pacifists oppose war and waive policing as a career for themselves but accept policing by others as a necessary social institution. Still other Christian peacemakers reject war but would consider participation in non-lethal policing. Finally, some support and would participate in local and global policing that may entail the use of lethal force—though, as J. Philip Wogaman warns in Christian Ethics: A Historical Introduction, peacemakers’ acceptance of and participation in police actions can potentially amount to equivocation.

Global policing, while clearly preferable to unilateral military action, is more congruent with just war than with pacifist tradition. As with local police, any use of force by a global police should be governed by criteria that dictate when and how it is justified—criteria that, as John Howard Yoder has observed, resemble those of the just war tradition. Force in policing should be used only as a last resort; it should be proportionate; and it should discriminate between perpetrators and innocent bystanders. Also, deadly force should be used only against a grave and imminent threat to the lives of police or other innocent persons.

Indeed, just policing might be described as the best example of the just war tradition. Thus, while Christian peacemakers might support a global police force as at least less violent than war, ultimately it is doubtful that they could in good conscience participate in such an armed force.

Tobias Winright’s writings include “From Police Officers to Peace Officers” (in The Wisdom of the Cross: Essays in Honor of John Howard Yoder) and “Community Policing as a Paradigm for International Order” (in Just Policing: Proposal for a Divided Church in a Violent World). He teaches Christian ethics at Saint Louis University.

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