As yet another Black man’s death comes at the hands of a White police officer, and the mysterious injuries that led to the death of a Black man in Baltimore after his arrest, reap headlines, a largely unpublicized, but highly significant dispute over the use of deadly force—mostly in minority communities—simmers out of sight.
Unlike the horrific scenes caught on cell phones in North Charleston, South Carolina, or in Baltimore, Maryland, very few media are focusing on the controversy regarding unjust, brutal policing between Franklin Graham, the son of the internationally famous evangelist, Billy Graham and Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners and a leader in the Christian social justice movement. Nevertheless, given the national prominence of both men, the dispute has broad social, economic and political implications for the society at large.
The younger Graham, who directs Samaritan’s Purse, an international aid organization based in Boone, North Carolina, ignited the controversy with a Facebook post that shocked a large number of Evangelical ministers, lay leaders and many in the wider faith community.
“Listen up,” he commanded, “Blacks, Whites, Latinos and everybody else. Most police shootouts can be avoided. It comes down to respect for authority and obedience.
“If a police officer tells you to stop,” he continued, “you stop. If a police officer tells you to put your hands in the air, you put your hands in the air. If a police officer tells you to lay down face first with your hands behind your back, you lay down face first with your hands behind your back. It’s as simple as that. Even if you think the police officer is wrong–You OBEY.”
“Parents, teach your children to respect and obey those in authority,” the statement went on. It concluded, “Mr. President, this is a message our nation needs to hear and they need to hear it from you. Some of the unnecessary shootings we have seen recently might have been avoided. The Bible says to submit to your leaders and those in authority “because they keep watch over you as those who must give account.” Graham’s post drew more than 200,000 “likes” and 83,000 “shares.”
James Wallis, the nationally regarded White clergyman who founded Sojourners, responded to Graham’s Facebook post in writing.
“Dear Franklin,” his letter began, “the real issue here goes much deeper than obedience to the police or lack thereof. We all need and should obey good police officers whose important mission is to serve and protect—but that must be done equally and without racial bias. Most African American men, in particular, could tell you their own, personal stories of mistreatment by White police officers, which had nothing to do with not obeying them. Many Black women and other people of color could tell you stories too. You should be listening to them.”
The reality, he said, “is that there are two policing and legal systems in America; one for Black and Brown people and one for White people—and that is now well documented, showing it is most stark for Black men and especially young Black men.”
Wallis directed Graham to “please read the Department of Justice report clearly proving strong racial bias in the Ferguson police department and the report of Presidential Policing Commission (with six police commissioners on the task force), which shows that this is a national problem.
Why do you speak only of the Bible’s command to submit to authority and not to the many Scriptures which challenge the sin of racism?
Remember, in ‘Christ there is no Jew or Greek.’ Also, the Bible does not say that the law is always right. Jesus challenged the laws of his day when they were unjustly applied or interpreted and the Apostle Paul wrote the Epistles from prison.”
The accomplishments of the Civil rights Movement, Wallis recalled, “were only possible because many brave Americans, including many Christians, non-violently disobeyed unjust laws and the authorities who sought to enforce them.”
Wallis told Graham that “its time to listen to, and learn from, Americans of color, including our Black brothers and sisters in Christ. Listen to why all Black parents have to have “the talk” about White police with their sons and daughters. Your Facebook post makes you seem, at best, oblivious to the racial inequity in this country’s policing and criminal justice system, which is also still deeply embedded in our American society. At worse, your post reflects your own racial biases—unconscious or conscious. It makes me sad to read such things coming from a leader of your position. So until you are equally willing “to listen up,” please stop making such embarrassing and divisive statements.”
Some 31 other Evangelical ministers—Black, White, Asian and Latino—in “An Open Letter” reinforced Wallis’ admonition with several of their own. Graham’s words “hurt and influenced thousands,” said the ministers, who noted that their action was guided by “the spirit of Matthew 18.”
Therefore, they advised, “we must respond publicly, so that those you hurt might know you have received a reply and the hundreds of thousands you influenced might know that following your lead on this issue will further break the body of Christ.”
“Are you also aware,” they asked, “that your commentary resonates with the types of misinterpretations and rhetoric echoed by many in the antebellum church?” Are you aware that the southern slavocracy validated the systemic subjugation of human beings made in the image of God by instructing these enslaved human beings to “obey their masters because the Bible instructed them to do so?”
“As one who understands human depravity, your statement demonstrates a profound disregard for the impact of sinful individuals when given power to craft systems and structures that govern millions. The outcome is oppression and impoverishment—in a word, injustice,” they declared.
“Finally,” they concluded, “if you insist on blind obedience, then you must also insist that officers of the justice system obey the Constitution, which protects the right of all to equal protection under the law. Yet (numerous) reports confirm unconscious racial biases in policing, booking, sentencing and in return, racially disparate outcomes within our broken justice system.” The letter ended by quoting James B. Comey, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation: “First, all of us in law enforcement must be honest enough to acknowledge that much of our history is not pretty. At many points in American history, law enforcement enforced the status quo, a status quo that was often brutally unfair to disfavored groups.”
For this article, two nationally recognized religious leaders, an often-quoted authority in policing and a nationally regarded civil rights attorney, were asked to comment on Graham’s post. They are: C. Garnett Henning, a retired bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Dr. Norman S. Johnson, Sr., a former executive director of the Los Angeles chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC/LA), Diop Kamau, the founder of Policeabuse.com, which represents victims, most lacking for their defense and Philip J. Kaplan, who practices law in California and Louisiana.
Graham’s post, said the bishop, “showed no Christian humility. Instead, his simplistic response to the historic and contemporary killing of Black and Latino youth sounds too much like ‘slaves be obedient to your masters’—to which he adds, ‘whether they are right or wrong.’ In offering his solution to the many senseless killings, he ignores the many who obeyed, but were killed anyway.”
Johnson said Graham’s post ” does not reflect reality or historical awareness, but a lack of socio-political thinking of how the words of clergy, particularly someone with the name Graham, challenges or confirms the views of conservative Christians.
“Graham’s use of Hebrews 37 is curious,” Johnson noted. “The text refers to ‘those who watch over your souls. Police officers are clearly not ministers or prophets who watch over our souls. That he would even imply that the function of law enforcement is to watch over our souls is unconscionable, if that is the Scripture he is referring to.”
For nearly two weeks, repeated attempts to reach Graham for comment for this article were unsuccessful.
Attorney Kaplan, in searching to identify the underlying causes of police abuse and violence, said, “in the same way that we now can’t question the reality of climate change, we really can’t question whether there is discord between many police departments and the communities they serve. The real question is, why is that? I don’t pretend to be a sociologist, yet I believe we must not see this as an isolated issue, I believe this reflects a deeper social problem.”
“You can’t deny that there is a divide, a rift. It’s a deeper issue that needs to be examined, said Kaplan, who has represented police officers as well as victims of police abuse.
“There are lots of really good police officers who would never think of abusing anyone and really good police officers who have chosen to be silent, for reasons I can understand,” he said.
“I believe in good policing, have represented officers in excessive force situations and stood shoulder-to-shoulder in representing them in all sorts of situations, so I know something about what they do and what their jobs entail,” he said. Moreover, Kaplan said, “there ought to be more scrutiny of command staff and chiefs of police.”
“I have a lot of empathy for rank and file officers; they’re taking directions, or lack of direction, from the command staff. The debate ought to include scrutiny of police departments, command staff and chiefs of police. If any discussion leaves them out and just focuses on rank and file officers–patrol officers, then we’re missing something very important,” Kaplan cautioned.
Kamau, an expert investigator and highly decorated undercover officer, focused on Graham’s apparent lack of due diligence before posting his opinion.
Graham, said Kamau, “cited no evidence that grossly discriminatory enforcement patterns are tied to the behavior patterns of the Black and Latino communities they serve. Unfortunately, Kamau added, “there is a lack of evidence to demonstrate that large numbers of whites are treated similarly on displaying similar behaviors.”
When Graham “can find a population of Whites who are similarly mistreated by police, he might have a point. There is no evidence, however, that Whites, in large numbers, risk similar misconduct and abuse in similar encounters and circumstances,” Kamau said.
If Graham “were to analyze payouts by major cities to settle police misconduct lawsuits since 1985, he would see that the victims were not compensated for an alleged lack of cooperation. In fact, just the opposite was the case,” Kamau said.
Indeed, Kamau continued, “African Americans, especially men, cooperate with police officers more than most people, yet are often harmed by the use of very draconian measures. In employing ‘stop and frisk’–it shouldn’t be be called ‘stop and frisk,’ instead, it ought to be called, ‘stop and humiliate’–far too many officers attempt to strip Black men of their dignity.”