When a police officer pulls you over, stops you, questions you, or is about to arrest you, how do you respond? Do you drive off, run away, yell and argue with the officer, declare your rights and freedoms, or fight with the officer? Or, do you comply, hold your peace, and submit?
This is not about whether you committed a crime, or your race, or whether a police officer might abuse his authority. This is about Christian ethics. It is about your response as a follower of Jesus.
There is no other story in the Scriptures that can relate to this situation as this one here, the scene where Jesus gets arrested:
When Jesus’ followers saw what was going to happen, they said, “Lord, should we strike with our swords?” And one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear.
But Jesus answered, “No more of this!” And he touched the man’s ear and healed him.
Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple guard, and the elders, who had come for him, “Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come with swords and clubs?
These police officers were normally assigned to the task of maintaining public order. They apprehend; civilians yield and comply. But, if civilians rebel and resist, the use of force will be great. Police officers are expected to be equipped with weapons but not for cruel treatment and brutality. Instead, they’re to be used as symbols of power to coerce one into submission. However, on that evening event, they approached Jesus in a way that was rather unusual. They were prepared to use excessive force.
There are two background elements in this scene which carry significance: night and garden. The police officers waited until sunset to search for Jesus. They knew if they approached Jesus during the day, the public would not condone it and would likely protest, riot, and fight. It was under the covering of darkness the authorities then chose to do their dirty work.
As for the garden, this was a place Jesus occasioned. It served as a reminder of what the world was like, and what it one day will become. Paradise. Here he remembered that state of perfection the world once was. It also served as a shadow of what it one day will be, a place where he envisioned shalom. But in this moment, between history and the prophetic, it was depravity and chaos and injustice.
Now, keep in mind that the police officers didn’t plan to go to Jesus out of their own scheme. They were ordered by the government. Most of the leaders in government – Pharisees, Sadducees, and others who worked for the court — were corrupted and lovers of power and money (Luke 16:14). Many of them gained their wealth by stealing from the poor (Mark 12:38-44). Also, specifically the Sadducees, one could not just become a member. One had to come from a certain blood-line. Money and inherited lineage gave them privilege and power. Like many countries then and now, Israel had systemic problems. The government against the underprivileged. It wasn’t the police officers that were the problem, they were only doing their job. The heart of the problem came from an unjust justice system.
The government’s worst nightmare was this: that someone would come to empower the common person, expose the government of their errors, attempt to depose them and liberate the people from their oppressive state. Jesus was this man to do exactly that. He was a radical, revolutionary who declared the wonderful news of Jubilee – the dream of liberation, justice, and peace. So the people loved Jesus, and because there were many, the establishment feared them.
The interesting thing is that the police officers were not alone. They were accompanied by soldiers. They had the backing of the military. John says (18:3) that there was a “detachment of soldiers”. This was, in other words, a Roman cohort. Cohorts vary in sizes, but the average number was 480 soldiers. It is likely John didn’t mean that many, but we don’t know. If so, you get the idea of the size of this “great crowd” of officers equipped with weapons that came to arrest one man. The temple police carried clubs and the Roman soldiers carried the swords. With the help and influence of the military, the police officers weren’t coming to apprehend Jesus in a non-violent way. Instead, they acted as if they were going into battle. The police acted outside their line of duty, as if they were soldiers fighting against a foreign enemy.
Jesus committed no crime. He did not break any laws. And, later in the Jesus story, the governor found no fault in this man. He was a peasant — someone from a low-class society — being harassed by the authorities. Jesus was no criminal, but was targeted as if he was one. An innocent, unarmed, man. Yet, Jesus allowed the authorities to arrest him nonetheless.
Right when the police and military were about the arrest Jesus, a disciple of Jesus, Peter, reacted with a weapon. Peter was a hard-headed kind of a guy. His name actually means “rock”. And, sometimes, you got to wonder if it was symbolic of his character. He was arrogant. He often spoke and acted before he thought. He was…like many of us.
For Peter to carry a sword, he was not just prepared to resist, protest, and defend, but to fight and kill. When he responded with his weapon, Jesus immediately dissociated himself from Peter. Jesus could not side with the one who reacted violently against a police officer. Jesus commanded the disciple to put the weapon away, and demanded that he not react in such an emotional manner.
And it was because of Peter’s violent reaction that caused another to get hurt, who by the way, wasn’t even a police officer! It was only by God’s grace that Peter missed the aid of his opponent’s neck and instead slashed his ear. This is not what Jesus had taught his followers. Violently reacting against an authority runs contrary to all that Jesus taught. So he had to fix it the wrong. Jesus quickly healed the man’s seared ear.
It wasn’t just Peter who was ready to defend his freedom and rights, the rest of Jesus’ followers were. Everything that they’ve learned from the Servant and Healer was thrown out the window, immediately forgotten. The followers of Jesus too had a war-like mentality. They were no different from the militarized police who confronted them. Rather than submit and question later, they wanted to win a battle. How difficult it is for men to lay down their pride, even those claiming to be devoted followers of Jesus?! When given the opportunity to show servant-hood, their pride was exposed.
Jesus understood this event was part of God’s providence. There isn’t any scheme unforeseen by God. The arrest through the betrayal of one of his followers, Judas, was fully known. This was part of God’s plan. At the time the authorities came, Jesus had a chance to bring ruin to God’s plan. He could resist arrest. He could call on legions of angels. He could blind them and take off. But he chose to accept the system, the arrangement of God.
As Jesus submitted to the arrest, he begins to criticize the way he was arrested. However, he doesn’t protest against it, rather, he protests the manner in which he was arrested — as if he was a criminal with a history of violence. In Jesus, we see that humility doesn’t equal silence. It’s unnecessary for a mob of officers to come with weapons made for war to apprehend one man. It’s this militarization of the police Jesus criticized and protested against.
Right after Jesus is arrested his close followers, those who traveled with him and sat under his teachings about living subserviently and having faith in God, ran away. They were afraid. It was fear which caused them to flee. Their lack of trust was shown. Peter and the rest of the disciples were full of pride and had trust issues. This is the reason they sought to respond violently against the police officers. Peter’s actions were anti-Christ. And, oh, how much Jesus wanted to repeat these words to him, “Get behind me Satan!”
Jesus was approached by a gang of police officers equipped with unnecessary weapons, however Jesus, instead of using his powers to react violently and resisting arrest, humbly complied while still offering his peaceful protest to the use of excessive force. Jesus, with divine power, allowed himself to be arrested. Peter, on the other hand, tried to resist the arrest with human power (weapon). If you ever find yourself in a situation as this, you must choose who’s going to be your leader: the suffering servant, the humble king, the prince of peace or, a prideful, self-centered, violent man?
In the way of Jesus, we must be obedient to the governmental authorities and law enforcement. Resisting arrest could be resisting God’s will. We should not use force against force, as Peter attempted to do. Doing so may result in death. No matter if it was deserved or not. Whether you committed a crime or not. Or how petty or enormous the crime was. The person who rebels against the law enforcement takes the risk of death. In humility and peace, we must subject ourselves to the authorities.
Though police brutality happens. Though certain people are targeted. Though the system may seem unjust. This is the natural reality we live in, but it is not the spiritual reality we live in. The way things are, thank God, is not where we place our hope. Instead, we place it in the transformative vision, mission, and work that is being done in this world. And in doing so, we live as if it is a present reality by not reacting emotionally or with pride and arrogance, but by continually sharing and exemplifying the gospel — a vision of a new world, of non-violence and humility.
As a Christian, when you feel you are targeted because of your identity — where you come from, your social or economic status, your lineage — and harassed because of it, find your identity in Jesus, that is, identify with him. Jesus went through what you went through. Find your strength in him. It takes Christ’s power to submit and endure an unjust and humiliating experience than to fight and flee. God ordains authorities and orchestrates events. If or when a police officer approaches you, don’t be a Peter. Be a Jesus. Take it as a divine opportunity to show Jesus, not your rebellious attitude.
As in the way of Jesus, the best way to bring any possible reconciliation and healing to your “offenders” is by being compassionate and forgiving. Pray for the police officers. Obey their orders. If they’re hurt by one of your friends, or those who are on “your side”, condemn those who are said to be for you and rectify the situation on their behalf. Apologize for their violent and self-centered actions. Listen to those wise words Jesus yelled to his gang as they attempted to fight the police, “Stop this!”
Martin Luther King Jr serves as a great example of how to respond when approached by the police. In his time, he practiced what is called “nonviolent resistance”. He is quoted saying, “Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals.” There were two people he looked up to: Gandhi and Jesus. Gandhi actually looked to Jesus as a model for his non-violent approach. Martin Luther King Jr, a Christian, followed in the way of Gandhi who followed in the way of Jesus. All three of these influential, radical leaders chose to protest through submission. That is how you change the world.
Try to see yourself in that place where Jesus found himself arrested. In the garden. At night. Violence within serenity. What Jesus does is beautiful. Instead of perpetuating the violence — us against the officers — Jesus offers a glimpse hope within this garden by healing a man who was the aid of his enemy. The garden is the place where the acts of injustice occurred. But, one day, it will be restored, peace will reign, and justice will prevail.
- Ask that the Spirit give you the strength to obedience, submission, and humility when stopped by the police. Don’t rebel or resist. Just comply.
- Share with others, by word and example, that the way to empower the powerless is by becoming powerless. Let your light shine. Violence against violence may just only lead to your death, and no one will have been won to the kingdom.
- Speak for justice. In a democratic nation, especially, we have a voice. I urge you to contact your representative. It’s the proper channel to voice your concern about the militarization of the police, and holding them accountable for using excessive force and practices that go beyond the need to apprehend an individual.
- If you must protest, in the way of Jesus (and Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr who modeled after him), protest through submission – non-violent resistance.
- Find ways to heal the person you or your community or the people on your side have hurt.
(See related post: “When a white cop harms a black man“)