Challenging the Police: Abolition and Christian Ethics

Modern just war theory shows us how radical moral protest can be repurposed to maintain domination. Now that police abolition is on the menu, we need a Christian ethics that grounds radical demands in social movements and struggle to end domination.

A half-century ago, demonstrations regularly filled the streets in the US and around the world – and were sometimes met with tear gas. Millions objected to racist violence supposedly aimed at the guilty but clearly afflicting the innocent. Chanting and singing for justice, protesters appealed to the conscience of the nation and the world. US out of Vietnam.

In the years following the US military’s withdrawal from Vietnam, American intellectuals reflected on how their nation could have made such an enormous mistake. Many intellectuals were sympathetic with the massive protest movement against the war; some had themselves played a role in that movement. A growing national consensus recognized the US military action in Vietnam as a failure politically, strategically, and morally. 

The book that captured the spirit of the moment, Michael Walzer’s 1977 Just and Unjust Wars, opens with Walzer identifying with the anti-war movement. Writing in the first-person plural, Walzer describes the moral vocabulary activists employed to condemn the war. This language stood in sharp contrast to the language of Walzer’s contemporaries in the academy, theorists who would reflect on war as a question of international law and national interests while bracketing questions of morality. Walzer set himself the task of explicating activist vocabulary, introducing moral considerations into the political theory of war.

Anti-war activists implicitly relied on ideas from religious just war traditions, according to Walzer, and this is the foundation on which he built a framework for adjudicating when military action is warranted and what military techniques are allowable. Walzer was the more prominent of many secular and religious political theorists who refined concepts, analyzed distinctions, and recovered historical resources in the service of sharpening and deepening moral intuitions about the justice of war. 

By many measures, just war theory was a resounding success. In 2002, as a just war framework was being used to justify the US invasion of Afghanistan and would soon be used to justify the invasion of Iraq, Michael Walzer would pen an article trumpeting “The Triumph of Just War Theory.” Walzer had become a regular presence in US military circles, lecturing frequently at West Point to officer-candidates yearning for assurance of their vocation’s morality. Walzer’s project of expounding a shared moral idiom served as a model for Christian theologians writing on war who often shied away from arguments grounded in specifically Christian commitments. Prefacing his effort to counter this trend, Christian ethicist Eric Gregory recently observed that most of his colleagues “no longer embed their accounts within a distinctively theological context, let alone robust accounts of a doctrine of God or divine providence attentive to the divine One who really entered history, suffered defeat, and conquered death.”

The moral vocabulary of a mass movement against American imperialism and in favor of national liberation was reduced to a technical tool wielded by the powerful to cloak their self-interest in righteousness. This tendency is evident as early as Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars: there he argues against American intervention in Vietnam and Allied carpet bombing during the Second World War, but he is in favor of Israel’s preemptive attacks on its neighbors. Jessica Whyte, an Australian political theorist, observes that it is actually only after the end of the Cold War, once American hegemony was uncontested, that American leaders embraced just war language. During the 1970s and 1980s, just war frameworks were primarily used, in the international arena, by socialist nations to justify anti-colonial struggle, drawing on ideas from Lenin and Mao and the vocabularies of mass movements of colonized people struggling for self-determination.

Progressive Christians have begun arguing that the just war framework should be abandoned. A gathering in Rome with significant representation from the global South, organized by Pax Christi, declared in 2016, “We believe that there is no ‘just war’. Too often the ‘just war theory’ has been used to endorse rather than prevent or limit war. Suggesting that a ‘just war’ is possible also undermines the moral imperative to develop tools and capacities for nonviolent transformation of conflict.” Christians should seek to bring about the end of war, not better war.

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In the months and years to come, it will be essential to remember the lessons offered by the development of just war theory. As in the Vietnam era, today there is a mass movement condemning injustice perpetrated by the state – then war, now policing, in both cases deeply linked with race. (In fact, the chant US out of Vietnam would occasionally continueCops out of the ghetto.) Intellectuals will be tempted to construe the moral vocabulary of the protests against police violence in a way that seemingly constrains the excesses of police abuse but in fact offers moral legitimacy to the police. This is already happening: some commentators have begun to interpret the imperative to abolish the police or to defund the police, unmistakable at protests, as a demand for better policing, for community policing.

In fact, Christian ethicists have already been debating what a framework for “just policing” should look like. Tobias Winright, a Christian ethicist who earlier in life worked as a police officer and a prison guard, and who continued work as a reserve police officer while employed as a theology professor, develops the analogy between just war reasoning and policing to explore criteria for when the use of force in policing is morally allowable (e.g., he judges tear gas illicit). Winright is sympathetic with challenges to contemporary policing that decry the militarization of the police, and he argues in favor of community policing efforts that take officers out of their cars and into relationships with the neighborhood are sworn to serve and protect, focusing on preventing crime and addressing harm with a problem-solving rather than punitive mentality. 

For other Christian ethicists, policing at its best offers a better model than war for Christians to respond to violent conflict. Mennonites and other Christians who are committed to nonviolence have a principled opposition to war often have ambivalent or under-developed views on policing. The theologian Gerald Schlabach argues, “Policing seeks to secure the common good of the very society within which it operates; because it is embedded, indebted, and accountable within that community, it has an inherent tendency to minimize recourse to violence.” In contrast, the military by design stands apart from a community, physically, culturally, and in terms of accountability. Indeed, Schlabach suggests that pacifist-oriented Christians could support military intervention around the world if it is framed in terms of policing, ostensibly motivated by humanitarian reasons.

Protests responding to police killings over the past several years and the larger Black Lives Matter movement that those protests energize are not demanding better police or more just police. They are demanding the end of police. At one level, this demand is an impassioned response to specific, horrendous police actions: the killing of unarmed Black men, women, and children. When an organized group is acting in a way that results in Black death every 28 hours, by one count, it makes sense to call for that group to be disarmed, defunded, and disbanded. 

As the movement against police violence has expanded, arguments in favor of police abolition have grown more sophisticated. One such argument is that when we consider day-to-day policing, we find a grotesque misfit between problem and solution. We imagine that police spend their time solving serious crimes when in fact research reveals that only a miniscule percent of police time in the US is devoted to responding to serious crimes. The image of crime-fighting police is used to justify salaries much higher than other, often more extensively trained public servants, and it is used to justify huge expenditures on militarized police vehicles, weapons, and gear. In fact, the vast majority of police officers’ time is spent addressing complaints and problems that could reasonably be addressed by a social worker (or community elder) – or directing traffic. 

The problems with police go beyond the pragmatic. In the field of Christian ethics, Andy Alexis-Baker and Michael Jaycox have argued that police are a cornerstone of systems of racial and economic domination. In the US South, police grew out of slave patrols, tasked with returning runaways and terrorizing the Black population. In the US North, police were tasked with managing the working class, suppressing behaviors that offended the bourgeois mentality and advancing the interests of capital by making workers compliant. Throughout the nation, police violently enforced gender norms. The function of policing has not essentially changed today, and a toxic culture pervades police departments, complete with an “ethics” which is really the opposite of ethical (and high rates of suicide and domestic violence). The ugly reality of policing today is concealed with the label of “service” and glorified with the imagery of the “warrior cop.” The police are a key reason US prisons are filled with poor, Black, and brown folks. 

Police abolitionists are open to experimentation and reform, but they are guided by the principle that advocacy and activism must always be focused on shrinking rather than transforming the police. Too often, seemingly humane reforms actually result in expanding the police, allocating new dollars for technology, training, or community liaison officers, all of which are still held tight by the gravitational pull of toxic police culture and anti-Blackness. Even social workers and alternative courts are too often part of the same self-satisfied culture as the police. They are regularly staffed by a multiracial middle class that has not come to terms with the way white supremacy and respectability infect ostensibly neutral bureaucracies and cause violence just as powerful, but less visible, as the police.

When presented with the idea of police abolition, many people ask: Will the social order collapse? Will violent crime and gangs run rampant? How will my family be safe? Isn’t it necessary to correct the bad people? Police abolitionists point out that there was a time before the police existed, just a century and a half ago. They point out that the sorts of harms supposedly addressed by police are actually best addressed by investing in education, health, and culture, and by alleviating economic inequality. Most of the tasks now allocated to police could be performed just as well, probably better and at a lower cost, by other public servants or community members. For the few remaining tasks, local communities rather than national governments are the best equipped for addressing them, and we are already seeing a variety of community experiments with practices of transformative justice that do not involve our criminalizing system.

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Many Christians will remain unsatisfied with the arguments and proposals of police abolitionists. There is a deep attachment in Christian culture to the necessity of policing. In today’s world, the religious attachment to policing in a broad sense slides into an attachment for a particular, historically contingent institution: the police. Even if Christians are convinced that the particular police system we have has gone haywire, many will remain susceptible to the lure of other policing systems, likely even more violent and grotesque than the one we have today. For that reason, we must interrogate the deep fondness for policing in Christian culture.

In Scripture, tradition, and Christian practice, many Christians find an emphasis on correction grounded in an account of human beings as inherently sinful. On this account, no matter how well-raised an individual is, no matter how well-acculturated into a community, no matter how loved, that person will still sin. The Christian tradition provides resources for naming those sins, and they must be corrected, whether by the individual or that person’s family or community, or by the state. To be a good person and to flourish, on this view, requires correction – over and over again. 

Because of the pervasiveness of domination in the world, it seems necessary to be punitive. The model of father standing over son, teacher standing over student, or master standing over slave have become paradigms for earthly relationships. The worldly logic of domination is all too often projected onto the divine, turning God into patriarchal Father, or Master – an all-powerful being who corrects wrongdoers through punishment and violence. 

Given the way this model so easily legitimates injustice, others have argued for a focus on Christian life as a process of formation in community. Moral exemplars, starting with parents and community elders, model the virtues. Each individual is imperfect, but each individual moves closer to moral excellence as that person responds to the love of family and friends and as that person learns from the collective moral expertise of a community. In other words, inside each person is an orientation toward the good, and in the right circumstances an individual will pursue the good, shedding vices along the way.

Formation is ostensibly less easily corrupted than correction. In formation, authority seems diffused, democratized, as it is spread through a community. Multiple moral exemplars are accessible to us, each with shortcomings but each pointing us in the direction of goodness (and truth and beauty). Formation happens naturally, quietly; correction happens brashly, often accompanied by condescension and moralizing. While partisans of correction charge that formation is inadequate and soft, a recipe for social disorder, in fact formation is the ethical mode of choice of the privileged. Aristocrats are formed; the working class is corrected.

In the concrete practices and institutions that guide our ethical life, correction and formation work together, their proportions varying based on time and context. But the predominant model of Christian ethics, at least as it is encountered in the pews, remains correction. For this reason, many Christians are primed to become attached to the particular form of policing that we have in our world today. But to counter the wrongs of actually existing policing, and the distortion of Christian ethics, requires not a simple turn to formation but a fundamental reconfiguration of the relationship between formation and correction.

Formation relies on community, and community is always structured by forms of power. Patriarchy, capitalism, xenophobia, nationalism, and anti-Black racism name particular forms of power that constitute and dominate our communities and our selves, shaping how we think, feel, see and act. They distort community, making the morally corrupt seem exemplary and the exemplary seem corrupt. 

Domination requires correction. We can never purge ourselves of domination through formation because formation is always already infected by domination. But how do we know what to correct if domination is so pervasive? We know through formation – not formation in a static community but formation in a community that collectively struggles against domination. We learn how to correct domination through formation in social movements aiming to end domination. Those movements are, of course, imperfect and internally distorted, but as movements they are dynamic, working collaboratively to attack the systems of domination that cause harm to us and to those we love. In doing so, they correct: not hollow, moralizing correction but correction aimed at corruption, aimed at those distorted by domination, including ourselves.

The movement to end US involvement in Vietnam was aimed at purging domination: nationalist, imperialist, patriarchal, capitalist, and racist. Its moral vocabulary was captured by reformists who directed attention away from the social movements in which it emerged. Today, more and more people are realizing that policing is a problem, and that a world without police is possible. Let us learn from the development of just war theory and insist that the problem of policing can be best understood and addressed by communities formed in struggle against the police.

Nathaniel Grimes is a PhD student in ethics and theology at Villanova University.

Vincent Lloyd is Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies and Director of Africana Studies at Villanova University.


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