Church and Policing Part 3: The Alternative Ecclesiology of Policing

This is the final post in a series on “church” vs. “policing” as different ways of organizing the world. Part 1 discussed how the church can understand itself as God’s covenantal people, and give shape to a gospel in which God confronts humanity with its true identity as chosen and beloved. Part 2 describes how this kind of a community wrestles with its own need for transformation. This final piece contrasts the formation of communities shaped by modern American policing with the community shaped by God’s election described in Part 1. Borrowing from William Cavanaugh’s description of the state as an “alternative soteriology,” I will describe policing as an “alternative ecclesiology.”

One place of conflict in modern culture which is becoming more urgent to the church as an institution is the visibility of police violence against poor black and brown people. This phenomenon represents what at first seems like a challenge to the church from culture, but careful examination may reveal a more complex relationship. We might understand policing, as it functions in America, as a way of organizing the world, that can be contrasted with the way of organizing the world presented by the church. To see it this way, we will consider an abbreviated genealogy of American policing offered by Gary Potter. He traces the history of modern police departments back to Southern slave patrols, which:

had three primary functions: (1) to chase down, apprehend, and return to their owners, runaway slaves; (2) to provide a form of organized terror to deter slave revolts; and, (3) to maintain a form of discipline for slave-workers who were subject to summary justice, outside of the law, if they violated any plantation rules. Following the Civil War, these vigilante-style organizations evolved in modern Southern police departments primarily as a means of controlling freed slaves who were now laborers working in an agricultural caste system, and enforcing “Jim Crow” segregation laws, designed to deny freed slaves equal rights and access to the political system.1

In this earliest iteration, police were the witnesses to a reality beyond themselves, a reality of racial and class identity which they reinforced. Police were formed by the command of white supremacy and capitalism. Any prior appeals to identity were called into question based on this new identity, which brought with it new obligations. Were a police officer to happen upon a dark skinned man in a field, there would be no “primitive encounter,” but one fundamentally shaped by the identities which had been given them by the superseding values of property and domination. These values are not disembodied forces acting outside history, but they constantly define and redefine themselves in the interactions of human community. The constitution of human society as individuals who are related to each other by these forces gives shape to a gospel in which those in power confront those on the margins with their true identity as non-citizens.

Policing is a transformative activity which reaches beyond the community of commissioned officers and disciplines the bodies and minds of the larger community into the kinds of people who reassert the necessity of domination along lines which have already been determined. Conflict happens at the sites where citizen meets non-citizen, where boundaries have been moved or transgressed. Bodies that are white, or male, or propertied, are themselves free from conflict. Those who are outside this axis can attempt to free themselves from conflict by adopting the disciplines of policing, and respecting boundaries. Conflict here happens only at the borders. The sites of these conflicts are judged as places of contamination, in which the only reasonable solution is to act on the contaminating agent(s) in a way that either assimilates or eliminates the threat.

Policing then creates a community that is radically closed, because there is no opportunity for those who have been affirmed by it to be transformed by their interactions with the outside. When the citizen meets the criminal, he can not expect to learn something positive about what it means to be a citizen. He can only learn what he does not want to be, what he has learned he is not. This community is only open to those with the possibility of assimilation, which is to say that it is only open to itself. For those who have it, citizenship is not a trajectory, but a matter of preserving what has already been attained. The opportunity for transformation is limited to those who have not been properly disciplined.

The particular kind of “election” described here runs contrary to the biblical narrative laid out earlier. Rather than particular people chosen to witness to the fuller reality of universal election, humanity in general is affirmed and specifically the people that conform to this concept of humanity. Bodies that are deemed human are accepted and bodies that do not are rejected. While some possibility of assimilation exists for those outside, bodies are so essentialized that “reconciliation” is not a developed instinct. This is partly because “wholeness” is relative – the chosen community is considered whole, as are the individuals inside it. We have nothing to learn from each other, and nothing to gain from those outside. Humility is a foreign concept, and since we are all qualified to understand the world around us, and the practice and process of discernment through communal dialogue is rendered obsolete.

In a country so deeply trained in this second way of being, and in a moment where the effects of this training are more evident than ever, how can the church as the people of God rediscover its covenantal identity? First we must realize that the church at present is operating from both narratives. This is evident not just in the lives of congregants who are commissioned police officers, but in the way all sorts of Christian theology and practice, from evangelism to the giving of the Eucharist, are shaped by an underlying assumption that certain people are to be rejected. This assumption is a natural fit with the racializing forces of modernity, and cloaks itself in the apologetics of “purity” and “holiness.” And it must be met with a stronger and broader force of Christian hospitality, as described here by Richard Beck:

Specifically, how are we to draw the boundaries of exclusion and inclusion in the life of the church? Sacrifice—the purity impulse—marks off a zone of holiness, admitting the “clean” and expelling the “unclean.” Mercy, by contrast, crosses those purity boundaries. Mercy blurs the distinction, bringing clean  unclean into contact. Thus the tension. One impulse—holiness and purity—erects boundaries, while the other impulse—mercy and hospitality—crosses and ignores those boundaries.2

The purity of the church, the “no” to inhumanity, is only in service of God’s “yes” to humanity.3 It is not a “no” to human bodies, but to the forces which rob human bodies and communities of their capacity to reflect the image of God. Inasmuch as our conceptions of purity perform this function, we must say no to them as well. The church is a people to be for and with others, because it realizes that it once was not a people; that once it had not received mercy, but now mercy has arrived (1 Peter 2:10).

Theologies of segregation pervert the identity of God’s people. Deeming it insufficient to simply be chosen by God, these ideologies tempt us to understand ourselves over against those who are rejected. This parallels J. Kameron Carter’s account of the formation of whiteness – a people set apart for itself, that came to understand itself only against the backdrop of dark peoples.4 Whiteness freed itself from the entanglements of culture, relationality, and responsibility, becoming an autonomous witness to what it is to be human. In this way, some other peoples could find their way into whiteness, but it could not be said that whiteness was fundamentally an identity for the benefit of those outside itself. White people, by themselves, are enough.

The mission of God in the world through the church should be a sharp criticism of this way of being. We worship a God who promises to gather others to us besides those already gathered (Isaiah 56:8). An expectation of this leads to a greater openness than a body of people shaped by the discipline of policing are taught is possible. God is and has always been at work in the people who did not know themselves to be chosen (Luke 4:25-30). This is a God who Himself who chose to dwell with a contaminated humanity, and allowed himself to be acted upon by it, even to the point of death. The function of policing as described in this paper shapes communities into dynamics that make sense according to the rationality of fallen humanity. But as Hauerwas reminds us, “Christians must live in a manner that their lives are unintelligible if the God we worship in Jesus Christ does not exist.”5 Our election does not make sense in and of ourselves. Our practices of hospitality and reconciliation leave us vulnerable, and do not make sense in a culture that values privacy and security. The calling of the church in this situation is to be the foolishness that God has chosen to shame the wise, the weakness that shames the strong. (1 Cor. 1:27).


1. Potter, Gary. “The History of Policing in the United States, Part 1” Eastern Kentucky University Police Studies Online.

2.  Richard Beck, Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Pub, 2011), 2.

3. Karl Barth,The Doctrine of God Part Two, ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance. (Edinburgh: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 1957), 13.

4. J. Kameron Carter, Race: A Theological Account. (Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2008), passim.

5. Stanley Hauerwas. “The Politics of the Church and the Humanity of God,” ABC Religion and Ethics.


Nathaniel Grimes

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