“I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the law.”
It may be foolish to suggest I know exactly how the apostle Paul felt in Romans 9:1-3, where he expresses impassioned hope for the salvation of his Hebrew kinsmen, even if such hope could only be realized at his own peril.
But I have an idea how he felt.
In that passage, Paul writes he has “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” over the estrangement between God and his Jewish brothers because of their ongoing rejection of Jesus, the Messiah. So great is his love for them that he suggests if their salvation could be accomplished only by his being “cut off from Christ” he would consider that a viable option. John Stott, in his commentary on Romans, quotes Martin Luther, who said of Paul’s remarkable appeal, “It’s incredible that a man would desire to be damned, in order that the damned might be saved.”
Such was Paul’s emotion for the Jewish people, and, in some distant way, so is my heart for the men and women I spent 17 years serving alongside in law enforcement.
It’s been three years since I daily put on a ballistic vest, and took up the modern-day sword known as a sidearm. But as I read the headlines and critiques of these brave men and women in the wake of tragedies in Ferguson and St. Louis, I too felt the sting.
From 2006 to 2008 my wife and I led an outreach ministry to local law enforcement officers. Some of my non-Christian co-workers dubbed our gatherings “The God Squad.” At first, the meetings were awkward. I was a relatively new Christian who had never led anything. Still, there were some sweet times, like when we took communion before the start of our shift. Or the time we hit the street to feed the homeless under a bridge. It was a meager effort, I admit, but God was bringing shape to my faith, and the faith of other police officers.
That night under the bridge ended with some local residents calling the cops on us. That’s right: cops were called out because a group of off-duty cops were feeding and sharing the gospel with homeless people under a bridge.
The next day, I was called into my captain’s office and told by my bureau commander to “cease and desist.” As it turned out, the sheriff didn’t want local residents upset at him in an election year. I had never felt more alone and out of place in my uniform than I did that day.
That improbable scenario taught me something about the spiritual condition of far too many of my “brothers in blue.” I saw myself, and where I had been spiritually, with new eyes.
To understand this unique group, you have to get a feel for the community as a whole. You have to first understand how they think, how they see themselves, and how they often relate to others because of their enculturated worldview.
As Christians, we understand the dangers of and striving for righteousness by works of the law. Non-Christian police officers sometimes regard themselves as “good” by virtue of their commitment to law and order in civil society. Law enforcement becomes to them a civil religious order.
This way of thinking, when coupled with the depravity they witness and endure daily, can produce a self-righteous, “us versus them” posture. I know this because I lived it. There was never a more profound moment in my career than the day I realized I was no different before God than the man I had just placed into handcuffs.
Law enforcement has a tenacious appetite for consuming the life of the individual. Its culture tends to be guarded, and fellow officers tend to be their own harshest critics. These realities make reaching police officers with the gospel difficult, as over time they learn to be suspicious of others.
This suspicion underscores how much our law enforcement community needs the tenderness of Jesus. They need to hear that while the system in which they work measures them by their own performance, the God who ordained their role in society offers them a relationship built upon grace.
At the end of a 25-year career, most police officers are emotionally and spiritually exhausted. Many of them die at relatively young ages within just a few years of retirement. As it turns out, these heroes need a hero of their own.
System of Justice
While this account may seem to paint a dark picture of your local patrolman, you should know that most do a good job of managing these difficult emotions. Most police officers are, as we say, “good people,” interested primarily in serving their community.
As we continue to scrutinize police practices, remember that the men and women at the center of the dialogue are, in many ways, just like you and your family. They’re your neighbors, the moms and dads pushing their children on the swing at the local playground.
And like the rest of us, they need the hope of the gospel. They need the church and the Christians who fill them to model Christ-like grace and mercy toward them, even as they live and move in a system of justice that knows little of either.