THE VALUE OF MEN, PART 1.
There are two dynamics of current American life that are on my mind as I write these articles. One is the too often tragic confrontation between African Americans and police officers, which I will write about first, and the other is the mass killing of African American young men. These two experiences are related in some ways, and unrelated in others. I believe the relation that these two kinds of events have in common are shared with other dynamics in American life as well.
My sense is that this commonality follows from a philosophy that underlies a lot of behavior in our culture, and most likely a philosophy that is often unconscious, but which affects behavior nonetheless. The philosophy of which I speak pertains to the arbitrary value of persons and this is in direct correlation to how some people think of other people as made in the image of God, or not. The prevailing philosophy of which I speak is the denial that human worth (or even person-hood) is simply due to a person’s existence, but that worth can only be affirmed when there is pragmatic utility, cooperation in the general stream of my or “our” corporate sense of security and well-being, or potential to be a contributor to such.
If this philosophical cultural stream is not changed then that stream will continue to take us down the river of death. We are going to have to expose it, refute it, repent of it, and change streams in mid-boat as it were if we are as a society going to see a real difference in how we treat one another.
If all human beings are made in the image of God, in God’s likeness, then their lives are important. They matter, and they have worth, and they are worthy simply because they are human, alive, and have that life as a gift of Almighty God. Of all people police officers need to have this belief. It doesn’t matter how well some have lived that life, how mean or impoverished their circumstances, how ignorant or vile their lifestyle, how uneducated or uncultured, or even how limited we sense their potential might be. Their value is not bestowed by men, their worth is not determined by other humans, since no human being had the ability to create that life. Biologically men have the ability to beget, and women have the ability to bear, children. None but God have the ability to create and give life.
If this is so then only God has the right to say when a life should be taken, and for those of us who believe the Bible we think he has done just that, by creating limits on who, and by whom, and when a life should be taken. This limitation is not just in the sense of the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” (which I understand as a prohibition to murder) but also in the acceptance of the sacredness of the image of God in man. James, in his epistle, reveals this sense of the sacred as he speaks about how we use our tongues, “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness.” (James 3:9) Once this sense of sacredness (seeing God) in other human beings is gone then anything becomes possible; seeing certain groups (of people) as obstacles to our economic progress, abortion, torture, murder, and even genocide.
Many unbelievers and scoffers of Biblical literature see it, the Bible, as a bloody book. Certainly the history it reveals has some bloody parts to it, and admittedly some of the God directed acts of violence make it seem as if it is not in touch with our modern sense of morality or human rights; as if modern morality was better, or more humane, or that modernity had allowed us to view human beings today with greater kindness and compassion than the Bible does. I don’t think a fair reading of modern history, or the philosophical trends that have guided how we have treated one another in our present age can possibly be compared favorably to a Biblical ethic or value on human life. In fact the vestiges of a Biblical world and life view might be the only thread holding us back from wholesale slaughter. Even directions in the Bible for the execution of those guilty of murder was due to the worth of that lost human life, and it is an affirmation of the dignity of the life of the guilty that makes them forfeit it.
The conflict between certain policemen and members of the African American community have exposed what I believe are examples of this human denigrating operating philosophy. We are living in an age of social media where immediate accountability by video allows the general public to make assessments as to whether authority is being properly exercised in the use of force. Fast leaving us are the days when we could just accept the word of a policeman as to why someone has been arrested, or why someone’s face looks like it has been beaten, or why someone is now dead.
These videos have shown us one alarming fact, some policemen and police departments have lied about how they have treated citizens. That fact ought to be alarming to all of us. For those in inner city communities this does not come as a surprise, but it has to some in the privileged class who seem to have had the expectation that authority figures never lie.
This is why being a believer in human depravity is fairly stabilizing. Who would think educated lawyers would ever deceive (except when they become politicians), or doctors would lie about treatments and costs to get richer, or students at elite universities would cheat on tests so they could pass or keep a good grade point average? Who would think judges would take bribes to send children to detention to enrich the owner of detention centers (as was recently done in Pennsylvania)? So we see that sometimes the real criminal is not the black young man who was driving while black, but possibly a brutal thug wearing a uniform and a badge who decided it was okay to be abusive and then lied about it.
This abuse of authority is especially galling because it strikes at the heart of our democratic system. If our history is correct it is one reason our forefathers fought the revolution so as to create this country, and why some of us have fought to maintain its principles. When authority is abused it puts not only individual citizens at risk, but the very system which requires respect and support from the entire community to be effective. It also puts the lives of officers at risk, as sooner or later citizens in their anger take upon themselves the role of vigilantes to overthrow what they think is abuse. This was done from time to time in towns in the old West as marshals were run out of town, as I believe happened to the Earp brothers a time or two.
The moment a police officer thinks or acts as if this “perpetrator” is less worthy of respect or less deserving of human rights than he is, despite the pragmatics and necessity of his job, he or she is devaluing the worth of that person. Here is a counter-intuitive thought, the consciousness of the sacredness of persons is most important when bad behaving persons need to be constrained, restrained, arrested, or stopped by deadly force. When we argue that it is okay to torture those in prison for terrorist acts because they are no longer worthy of human rights, we have stopped believing in the sacredness of persons.
The use of force by police is supposed to be progressive and proportional and only escalated to the point of deciding the issue so the offending person is controlled. Some officers have taken this to mean that they have the right to smash heads into the ground, pound suspects with fists or batons even though they are handcuffed and immobile, gratuitously body slam others, and even use deadly force (though not in moments when their life is in danger) simply because they were afraid, nervous, or angry.
The wide space of an officer’s discretion as to what constitutes “resisting arrest” has allowed for too many abuses. For the record let me state this clearly, in all the thousands of incidents between citizens and police on a daily basis most people are treated with courtesy and respect, even when they get arrested. Nevertheless, the continued occurrence of deadly decisions between armed officers and unarmed, and now deceased, African Americans is and ought to be a cause for national concern.
Now, any of us, even while believing that people are created in God’s image might still become angry and lose our self-control and hurt someone. Yet, I think we are dealing with more than the immediacy of our emotions in many of these confrontations. We are sometimes dealing with a despising of certain groups of people by authority figures and a reckless disregard of their human dignity when they must be brought into restraint or, even more on point, when they don’t have to be restrained but an officer simply wants them to be.
We readily admit that there are many people who act nasty, show disrespect to officers, are threatening and intimidating, and whose general behavior is disgusting. We admit there are some very bad people out there who are dangerous and need to be locked up, and we need the police to do that. The police have such a very hard job to do. Their vocation necessarily calls for them to suffer, but I am afraid that the present practical ethos in some departments calls for them to avoid suffering by making others suffer first.
All lives do matter, though some who have said this have misunderstood the context and injustice of not admitting that “black lives matter” is an important and necessary statement for our nation. This is because it has been the evidently widespread and too frequent occurrence of the shooting and killing of unarmed black men which has led to such community tension over the last year. It is not new, and that just gives impetus to the fact that change is long overdue.
We will speak next as to the devaluing of human life and how it plays a part in the slaughter of so many young people, mostly by gun murder, in the African American community.