An Open Letter to Franklin Graham on Police Brutality

Dear Mr. Graham,

Given your knowledge of Scripture, I know that you are familiar with the account of 2 Samuel 12:1-15. It tells the story of Nathan the prophet when he rebuked King David for murdering Uriah, the husband of Bathsheba.  Nathan brilliantly set up his rebuke by telling David the story of a poor man who owned a single lamb which he greatly loved.  Nathan then recounted how a very wealthy man, who already owned many flocks of sheep, stole the poor man’s lamb and had it killed for a meal.  In response, King David was enraged and proclaimed that the wealthy man deserved to die.

It was at this point that Nathan unleashed his trap and brought David to shame.  He immediately proclaimed, “You are the man!” and drew the parallel between the story of the poor man’s lamb and David’s greatest sin–the murder of Uriah and David’s adultery with Uriah’s only wife, Bathsheba.

Why am I reminding you of this story?

Because of your platform as the son of one of the most famous evangelists in history and as an influential Christian teacher in your own right, you have the chance to emulate Nathan’s rebuke to powerful authorities in our day when they inflict violence upon those who do not deserve it.  Instead of doing this, however, some of your recent comments on police brutality have ignored Nathan’s example in a way that is damaging to any rational person’s perception of Christianity.  At best, your views on this issue are naive and heartless.  At worst, you risk blindly taking the side of the oppressors.

Allow me to make my case.

On March 12, you made a post on Facebook about police violence in the United States that received over 200,000 likes.  Your message was simple: if you don’t want to get shot, then obey the police.

In your post, you implied that police shoot their victims because their victims are being rebellious, uncooperative, or resistant.  You also implied that those victims should be more obedient in order to avoid being shot and you asked President Obama to urge the nation toward this goal.  You also claimed that we could reduce the amount of shootings if more people simply obey the police at all times, even if we think the police are wrong.  Finally, you seemed to say that the Bible commands us to always obey those in authority and that recent police violence is a symptom of our disobedience.

Where to begin?

As someone who has followed stories of police abuse and violence for several years now, I can honestly state that I read new and unique instances of police violence on near a daily basis.  Recent high profile cases, such as Eric Garner’s and Walter Scott’s deaths, have brought this issue to the mainstream.  But they are sadly not isolated cases of brutality.  In 2014, as far as we can track without official numbers, 1100 people were killed by the police.  Already in 2015, over 300 more people have been killed by police as of April 9 (Source for both statistics: which tracks the number of individuals killed by police through the news stories to which we have access).  These figures do not include the number of people who are injured or maimed by police, and those who suffer severe trauma and psychological distress from such altercations.  There are at least hundreds, if not thousands, more of those people.

As a side note, to bring our comparison back to Nathan’s story of the poor man’s lamb rather strikingly, police also kill hundreds upon hundreds of dogs during enforcement activities like drug raids.  If you want to read a truly tragic account of one such canine execution, you can read about Burberry the service dog here.  I have read infuriating examples of police officers who essentially shoot these dogs for no reason at all (Burberry’s death is one such story).  I guess those dogs should have been better trained at puppy obedience school?

Now, let’s assume that in all of the above instances I listed, those individuals who were killed or abused by the police (or who had their dogs killed by the police) were angry, disgruntled, scared, or even reached out to push the officer away.  Maybe they swore at their officer or raised their voice.  I’ll even grant that in probably some of these instances there might have been a struggle where the officer legitimately thought his life was in danger.  But, outside of those instances, does any of the other patterns of behavior warrant death or serious injury? Do you honestly think that raising your voice to a police officer or hesitating to throw your hands in the air is an automatic bullet through the heart or chokehold around the neck?  Do you really think cussing at an officer merits your head being smashed into a wall?  Do you really think the death penalty is warranted for being rude?

I doubt you do, but your comments on Facebook do not demonstrate that understanding.  Instead, they place the moral blame entirely upon those who are, in the vast majority of cases, defenseless and non-violent victims.  Conveniently, you stand behind the men and women who wear badges and wield guns while shifting the blame to those who cannot stand up for themselves–and if they try, you blame them for the actions of the officer.  In doing so, you completely ignore the officer’s moral agency in using excessive and lethal force that we all would agree would be unjust if utilized by a private citizen.

Furthermore, because you make this error, you have taken a simplistic and naive stance on a very complex issue.  So many defenseless people, from grandparents to newborns, have suffered the horrific consequences of police brutality over the past few decades–and in a number of instances, the damage is collateral–obedience or non-obedience has little to do with the harm caused in these cases.  Death, injury, and psychological trauma have been the wake of numerous law enforcement operations, practically ruining individuals and families for years to come.  When a SWAT team smashes down the door to someone’s house in a drug raid and shoots someone because they leap up from their couch in shock, the problem is not a failure to obey police.  No individual should be treated like a terrorist in their own home.  But to these people your response is to simply say, “Shut up and obey…or face the consequences.”

To help you understand what actually happens in these scenarios, I would encourage you to actually read and watch the reports of police brutality that have occurred over the years.  I will warn you that what you will read in most instances will be absolutely heartbreaking–if you actually choose to spend time reading about these stories.

For instance, you will see reports of flashbang grenades being thrown into a toddler’s crib or a sleeping girl’s bedroom, leaving such children with hideous and life-changing injuries.  You will see reports of a 7-year old girl shot to death while sleeping on the couch with her grandmother.  You will see reports of an innocent man choked to death by police in a movie theater parking lot in front of his wife and teenage daughter (you can even watch the video of the wife screaming, “He’s not breathing!  You killed him!” if you wish) .  You will see reports of an ex-Marine shot to death in his own home while trying to defend his family when he didn’t know that the  unannounced armed men breaking down his door were SWAT officers.  You will see reports of a woman who had her skull smashed to the floor of a concrete cell by a police officer (and if you watch the video, you will see the blood pooling up underneath her head).  You will see reports and watch a video of a man who yelled out that he couldn’t breathe, but was nevertheless strangled to death for the mere crime of selling untaxed cigarettes.  And just recently, you will see reports of a man who ran because he was scared–and who was shot in the back by a police officer.

And finally in this last case, we have a murder charge against a police officer to discuss.  Finally.

What’s really sad is I literally just mentioned all of those instances from memory–I didn’t even have to look up the articles because I remember each of them in all of their horrific and gory detail.  Feel free to look them up if you choose, but there are hundreds more where those came from.  You can start with the link above.

If you’re truly committed to actually understanding this issue, I strongly suggest that you read one book.  It is called Rise of the Warrior Cop by Radley Balko.  Balko is one of the preeminent researchers into conventional police tactics and modern police history in the United States.  His book will feature even more examples of unwarranted brutality against peaceful and non-violent individuals for your perusal.  If there is nothing else that you read on this issue, I urge you to read Balko’s book as it will open your ideas to the absurdity of your position that all we have to do to stop police shootings is shut up and obey.

I will acknowledge that your most recent comments regarding the Walter Scott case seemed to admit the moral guilt of the officer involved in that instance.  This is hardly a feat, however, given that practically everyone has agreed that the officer was in the wrong.  Moreover, in this comment, you still beat the drum of obedience to the police as if it is some sort of solution to the problem of police brutality.  That’s not the real solution because it’s not addressing the real problem.  The real problem is that police are using any excuse they can to utilize brutal force against individuals who are, in most cases, defenseless, caught off guard, and misunderstood.

Let me be clear: I do not write this to say that all police officers are abusive, nor am I asking you to consider that as a possibility.  I am merely asking you to reconsider your misguided notion that failure to obey the police places the moral guilt for police violence upon the victim, who is not holding the gun, instead of the police officer, who actually pulls the trigger and cuts short someone’s life.

Allow me to conclude by telling you how damaging the perspective you espoused on March 12 is to those of us who are trying to share Christ’s love in the midst of a broken world.  The theology of authority that you advanced in your comments on March 12 is not really a theology of authority…it is a theology of abuse.  It is a theology that, were it applied on a micro level, would justify a husband in beating his wife because she talks back at him (“Wives, submit to your husbands…”).  It would justify, again on a micro level, a father who throws his son into the ground for refusing to turn off the TV (“Children obey your parents…”).  Those who are looking for an excuse to justify a power trip are not worthy of obedience and should be held to account for their violence and their abuse, whether as an abusive spouse, an abusive parent, or an abusive police officer.  Sin is sin.  Oppression is oppression.  And abuse is abuse.  It is adamantly not rightful authority.

Thankfully, Christianity is far more nuanced and deep in its understanding of ethics–simply taking verses about  submission out of context to place moral guilt upon the victims of abuse is not acceptable, regardless of the office of the abuser.  And perhaps best of all, Christianity points us to the King who loved us so much, that he died for lawbreakers, criminals, and sinners.  He came to alleviate the suffering of the abused and cast off the yoke of the oppressor so that we might bear his yoke of love and share it with others.  That is the message that we can share with victims of police abuse as Christians–not blame them or their loved ones for being scared, angry, or frustrated when a gun is thrust in their face by a police officer.

Like the heroic prophet Nathan, let’s be willing to stand up before the world and hold police officers accountable for their brutality when they commit it.  Let’s not blame the poor man for refusing to sell or share his only lamb–even if it is the police who are demanding it. Like Isaiah, let us say, “Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees, and the writers who keep writing oppression, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be their spoil, and that they may make the fatherless their prey!”  (Isaiah 10:1-2)

In short, I hope you will reconsider your position.

Best regards,

Jason Hughey