Police, Protesters, and All The Wrong Questions

The questions seem so simple:

Aren’t you going to support our police?

Aren’t you going to take a stand against racial injustice in America?

But behind the questions are questions like this:

Aren’t you going to support those who are victims of injustice and support efforts to identify and fix instances of racial injustice in America, or are you going to continue to turn a blind eye to a broken system and to real communities that are really hurting?

Recently I was talking with one of our church leaders about some of these issues and he pointed something out: “Are we even asking and answering the right questions?”

His observation was that often when the issues get to us they’ve already been framed in a certain way by the world around us. There are accepted premises. But Jesus, he said, often didn’t accept the questions he was asked. Jesus often refused to answer the questions posed to him because they weren’t the right questions and wouldn’t get at the right answers. Now, surely much of this was in the rabbinic tradition, but we have much to learn.

Learning From Jesus

Look at just a few examples and then study the gospels for yourself:
In Mark 10 the rich young ruler asks “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

But Jesus asks, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except for God alone.” Jesus sees immediately that this young man’s conception of the world as “good people” and “bad people” but Jesus helps him see only God is truly righteous and only those who are willing to make God their greatest treasure, placing all their faith in him, are true disciples.

In Mark 12 Jesus was presented with the thorny issue of paying taxes to a corrupt Roman government that would likely use some of that very money to oppress the Jewish people. “Is it right to pay Caesar or not?”

But Jesus knows this is too narrow a question. Instead he asks for a coin and then asks, “Whose inscription is this?” And tells them to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. The premise of the original question lacked an understanding that God rules over all, even human rulers, so Jesus answers the right question.

Perhaps most famously, Jesus answers the question of “Who is my neighbor” with a parable illustrating the utterly false premise of the question through the parable of the Good Samaritan. The people of that day wanted to know what limits they could give to their piety. Instead Jesus shows them that the question isn’t “Who is my neighbor?” (it’s every person) but essentially “How can I be a good neighbor?”

Here’s the point: In our world today critical questions are being asked on every side (same sex marriage, religious liberty, sexual ethics, immigration, genocide, just war, etc.). But we can’t assume that the way the culture forms these questions is the right way, or that the assumptions behind the questions are valid.

Answering The Right Questions

Let’s return to the issue of racial strife in America and take, as an example, the issue of whether we default to trust the police or the protestors. If you’re like me you probably have a gut-level reaction when there’s a news story alleging that police used excessive force against someone of a minority ethnicity and protests ensued. Are you with the heroic police force against the half-truths of the media and false narrative of racial discrimination? Or are you with the reasonably angry protestors standing for their rights to walk the streets without harassment or threat from a failed justice system?

To be blunt, I don’t think either of these are questions that Jesus would have answered.

There’s much that can and should be said here but let’s introduce just two biblical passages and how they reframe the question:

None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.” “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” “Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.” (Romans 3:10-18 ESV)

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 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. (Romans 13:1-4 ESV)

Now right now the pro-police contingent is probably smiling and the pro-protestor contingent is ready to bring up a host of other biblical passages. But hang on for a second. One of the things most clear is that everyone has a serious serious sin problem not just against God but against their fellow man (deceit, shedding blood, etc.) and that there is evil on the earth that must be restrained.

All that Paul says about the human heart is true on a national level, which is why God gives authority over to governments. It can’t be eliminated by simple rules (as Paul also shows in Romans) but it can be restrained. And remember the context: Paul is talking about the often corrupt usually oppressive Roman government—even this fallen and broken and sometimes unjust government keeps evil from running rampant.

This is what we must remember about the issue of law enforcement then: there really is evil out there in the world and even an imperfect law enforcement is restraining the worst kinds of evils. When it comes to those those with grievances there may be many who are model examples of protest, but Romans 3 lives in the hearts of protestors and there often must be some appropriate restraint.

While we should be quick to see and point out injustice we must not wear rose-colored glasses–some have just and some will have unjust complaints against government, and some will have a just cause and fight for it unjustly.

But we also can’t overlook this truth either: Romans 3 is at work in the very government that is doing the restraining. Romans 3 and 13 together mean that evil must be restrained in the very people given the task of restraining evil. Paul is not endorsing the injustice or atrocities of the Roman government by any means.

This means that while we rightly thank God for police departments across America, we cannot look at any police department (or any government agency for that matter) and assume that its practices or officers or enforcement need no restraint.

Here’s the point: We come to the table assuming that evil must be restrained both in citizens and in government. This causes us to ask questions like, “How can we best make sure we’re restraining evil and injustice in law enforcement? How can we best make sure we’re restraining evil and injustice in those lodging complaints against the government­­? How can we do both at the same time for the maximum promotion of justice?”

The Bible is relentlessly realistic about sin and government and this should make us clear-eyed on these issues.

We cannot simply accept the questions formed by our culture and answer them. Some of them may be good questions worth an honest and straightforward answer. But often the Bible gives us a very different lens through which to view the world, and a different set of questions.

So how do you stop answering the wrong questions? You spend enough time in the Bible to question your questions. You follow Jesus in your worldview as much as the details of your daily life. Then and only then can we begin to see our own culture clearly. Then and only then can we begin answering the right questions.

Ricky Alcantar

I'm the Lead Pastor at Cross of Grace Church in El Paso, TX. I love my wife Jenn, my two boys, and my city. Sometimes I write. Other times I just think about writing and listen to a lot of podcasts instead.