MORE THAN A BADGE AND A GUN
By Wendy Murray Zoba
In the post-Rodney King era of the videotape, law-enforcement agencies have come under increasing scrutiny by the public. Police are expected to enforce the law firmly yet justly, but finding a balance that satisfies all the people they serve seems to be more difficult than ever.
Steve Lee, a Colorado Springs police chaplain and executive director of Peace Officer Ministries (POM), has an insider's understanding of the police profession. Many cops, are isolated, conflicted, and in desperate need of understanding and grace.
After a career in law enforcement, Lee attended seminary and was ordained in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in 1992. He spent several years as a missionary in the Ivory Coast and returned to the U.S. to launch POM in 1996. He has ministered in critical situations, including the Focus on the Family hostage crisis of 1996 and last year's Columbine High School massacre, Wendy Zoba spoke with Lee recently at his Colorado Springs office.
As a Christian ministering to the law-enforcement community, what do you see as this group's most crucial needs?
Law enforcement is a subculture, and you have to understand that subculture in order to minister effectively. Police have their own language, norms, mores, and rituals. Anytime you have an identifiable subculture, you have, by definition, a distancing from the main culture.
Our ideas about police officers are often formed by media, and we have a stereotypical view of these folks. We don't quite view them as real people. With shows like Cops, you only see the chases. You don't see the officer sitting there for two or three hours waiting, the slow shifts, or the paperwork. We see them as a badge and a gun. We don't understand that they're ordinary people doing a difficult job.
Give me an example of a difficult situation a police officer regularly confronts.
When I was a police officer, I got a call one time on a drunk guy who was acting unruly at a bar in an outlying area. I didn't have backup close by, so I had to go in by myself. I saw the guy at the bar and then looked in the mirror (behind the bar) and saw that he had a large kitchen knife tucked under his arm. I also knew he was very intoxicated. The book says I should maintain distance, give him some borders, and not get into a tussle. But I had this sense that I could handle him and wanted to minimize the risk to him and myself. If he didn't have the good judgment to put down the knife when I approached him, he might try to swing it, and then I might have to kill the guy. I thought I could handle it another way.
So I made my move and went up to him and simply took the knife away from him. I might be criticized by my fellow officers for my tactics, but I made a judgment call. Officers do that day in and day out. A lot of times they show remarkable restraint when they would be legally entitled to use deadly force.
They have these experiences daily of risking their lives in quiet corners that nobody knows about.
Why do you think the law-enforcement community is undergoing such scrutiny lately?
There is a small percentage of bad cops who somehow wind up with a badge and a gun. Some of them are pathological, but it's a tiny minority.
But when I speak to churches, I say the reason we can sit here, calm and secure, is because right now there's an officer assigned to protect us. If someone were to come in and pull a gun, like what happened at Wedgwood Baptist Church in Texas, an officer or officers would show up and gladly lay down their lives to protect others.
So how do you minister to them?
It really helps having been there myself. In my capacity as a chaplain, I often ride with an officer. But if he doesn't know that I used to be a cop, he treats me like an outsider and is very careful. But it usually comes out naturally that I used to be in law enforcement, and the officer gets this smile on his or her face and says, "Oh, well you know." The fa?ade drops away, and then the real conversation begins.
How do they respond to the gospel?
Most officers live in the realm of the law-both on the job and at home. Their knowledge of God is legally based, with the ideas of right and wrong, good and bad. They carry out the policies of the justice system. They are enforcers on the street.
However, that does not translate smoothly into one's home life. I've seen many officers who get controlling in their marriages and begin to make legalistic demands on their spouses and families. The law is not just a legal device to give order in society. There's a spiritual dimension to it.
It's instructive to look at Paul's letter to the Romans. Paul says the law serves three functions. First, it acts as a curb in society, restraining people who will not restrain themselves.
Second, it acts as a guide, telling us what we should and should not do to be well-intentioned, ethical people. It tells us don't' steal, don't murder, and so on.
Finally-and this is of ultimate theological and personal importance-the law acts as a mirror. It shows us our true self. We look at the law and we see that we've fallen short of God's glory.
From God's perspective, this is the law's primary function. It serves as a mirror that shows us that the law will not save us and will ultimately condemn us.
How does this view of the law affect a police officer's understanding of faith?
They have scales of justice and may think, "Well, I may screw up on one end of the scale, but I compensate for it on the other end by all the good stuff I do." An officer will feel pressure to be moral and legally responsible, but at some point his struggle to be moral breaks down because human beings can't endure that kind of perfectionism. Consequently, we see officers at high risk for divorce, suicide, alcoholism-the list goes on and on. The divorce rate among police officers is upwards of 80 percent, and officers are three to four times as likely to commit suicide than to be killed in the line of duty. On top of that, they're constantly exposed to the human condition, the failure of humankind to live up to God's standard. They see failure in the face of the law and the failure of the law's solution for that human condition.
How do you help them find hope in God?
Say, for instance, somebody commits a heinous crime that calls for the death penalty, and then he becomes a Christian. Some people might argue that, in light of that, we shouldn't execute him. Most police officers won't buy that. They generally don't accept the idea of grace or forgiveness that doesn't also acknowledge justice.
Well, the gospel of Jesus Christ does that beautifully. The Cross is the resolution. It's like Martin Luther said: Justice and mercy kiss at the Cross. That's the only resolution for God's need for justice and for humanity's need for forgiveness and absolution.
I phrase it in cop language; I talk about God's two jurisdictions. One is God's jurisdiction of the law and the other is God's jurisdiction of grace. Officers typically see a God who is either too merciful and lets people off too easy, or not merciful enough so that no one can find peace. Many of them can't resolve that issue. So I show them that the way God integrates both jurisdictions is the Cross of Jesus Christ.
Why do you call your ministry Peace Officers?
The idea comes from Romans 13, where it says that governing authorities, which to me includes police officers, are literally ministers of God.
In the New Testament, every time a soldier or a centurion is mentioned, it is in connection with their law-enforcement role, not their war-making role. Also, whenever a centurion is mentioned in the Scriptures, that centurion is always mentioned favorably.
Therefore, I use the centurion as a model of what an officer should be-and what a Christian officer can be. These officers need to recognize that God endorses their work, and "peace officer" casts the vocation of law enforcement in a positive light.
You speak about the police community in almost missionary terms.
In one sense, cops are an unreached people group. It's not like other professions. With the police, there's an emotional and spiritual distance from people that needs to be bridged. My ministry is part of that bridge.
Reprinted by permission, Christianity Today.