A Pastoral Letter to Law Enforcement Officers
by The Rev. Daniel P Strandlund | October 1, 2020I am a priest in the Episcopal Church, which means that like you, I wear a uniform. Mine is a black shirt with a little white tab in it. Pretty simple, really. No badge, no belt with lots of equipment, no car with sirens and lights. But I do know a little of what it’s like to wear a uniform. I, too, am a walking symbol.
Like you, my day can change with a single phone call. A morning spent handling mostly inconsequential matters can, without warning, turn into an afternoon in which I lay my hands on a dead or dying person, and then talk to their loved ones. I have been asked to help when a homeless man shouts angrily at a nurse, or at the manager of a gas station, or at a person I am unable to see. I am someone people give their anxiety to when they are not sure what to do with it.
I know that you are, too.
Sometimes I have to make a conscious decision to put my own feelings aside in order to be calm, confident, and helpful in the midst of whatever situation I’m in. It can feel like my own humanity recedes into the background a little so that I can be something somebody else needs me to be. I bet you know what that feels like. People always need the uniform you’re wearing, but they don’t always want there to be a you there wearing it.
Like you, my uniform makes me privy to stories and other kinds of information not everyone hears. Some resonate with me. Some touch my heart. Some are frankly hilarious. Some I hope to forget.
People thank me for things I haven’t done. Once a college student bought my lunch for no reason, and then shook my hand and thanked me for my work. She was almost teary, but I’d never met her before. This cuts the other way, too, though. A drunk guy once chewed me out for half an hour because, apparently, I hate gay people. I had never met him.
That last bit is about the worst that’s happened to me because of my uniform, though. I know it’s different to wear yours. I’ve never had to worry someone might shoot me while I’m sitting in my car drinking coffee. People dressed like me don’t get targeted like that. Not in the United States, anyway. There are limits to the similarities here.
Still, it’s hard to be a symbol. Our uniforms, in their different ways, signify something that is impossible for us to be fully. We represent what is more trustworthy and reliable than we ourselves are. Our presence gestures to something that is powerful and that is worthy and that is not exactly us, even on our best days.
Or that’s the hope, at least. Symbols gather to them potencies and significations we’d rather not carry. Even ones we deliberately reject. Control, oppression, the raw will to power.
On the best of days, I get high fives from kids because uniforms can be very interesting to children. Their parents smile when a high five happens because this affirms that their children are growing up in a world whose foundations are secure, a world that is safe and where people with power—people like us—want what is best for them. Uniforms like the ones you and I wear both represent and help create that security. We walk around communicating, “The center will hold, the center will hold, the center will hold.”
Again, that’s the hope. On the best days, that’s how it is.
I know that there have not been many days like that for you in recent months. George Floyd died in police custody—a man whose death was mourned and condemned by quite literally every police officer I know—and since that happened, you have tried to do your jobs in towns and cities that do not seem to want you in them anymore. The very people whose security you have sworn to ensure, the very people whose center you are trying to hold—they are protesting you, and they are doing it as you are trying to protect their very ability to protest.
Some of you likely feel betrayed. Some may be haunted by the question of whether or to what extent the protestors are right. This is all very bitter.
One of the worst parts of being a symbol is that sometimes it seems like our job is to be the object of someone else’s anger. Symbols give people a location to put their passions, a black box into which their anger can go. This is why people burn flags. It’s why angry citizens scream into your faces. It is, in a different way, the reason people tell me their sins and their sufferings. People need a way to engage with whatever it is we represent. So we suit up.
I imagine the angry citizens in the streets right now don’t really want to hear how you feel about any of this. You’re the uniform, after all. Just the face of that thing they need to make sure hears them. You don’t get to say what’s on your mind. You are not equals. One of you must always act in the other’s best interest, and that is oftentimes a one-way street.
But take it from one who knows: you are not your uniform. Your uniform is not made in God’s image; you are. God did not send His only begotten Son into the world because He loved your uniform, but because He loves you. The Word did not become a police uniform or a priest’s black shirt and tab or a nurse’s scrubs or fatigues or any other suit; the Word became human flesh and dwelt among us. Like you and like me, this Word has a name and not just an official capacity. His name is Jesus of Nazareth.
When God looks at you, he does not ask you to recede into the background so that the symbol you have taken on can fulfill a role. When God looks at you, he does not ask that you set aside your own feelings or your own anxiety so that you can be calm and confident and in control. God knows that sometimes you keep your uniform on even when you’ve taken the literal one off because it makes you feel calm and confident and in control, too. God knows that choosing this job costs you.
God knows that you are not the source of security upon which the world stands. God is the one who made the earth so sure that it cannot be moved. The center holds because of Him. At the end of the day, He doesn’t need you to handle this.
There is grace here, and there is freedom. There is a crowd of angry people screaming at you, yes, but there is a face among them in which there is no hatred. There is a face among them who knows that you are actually hurting right now.
It is the face of Jesus, and in it there is love and peace and forgiveness, even of sins we are unable to name. This is the face of a man who knows what it is like to be George Floyd and who knows what it is like to be where you are now—that is, scorned by people who’ve never actually bothered to speak to you. He, too, has prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
I don’t know what specifically needs to happen in the cities of our country. I do know, however, a little of what God’s kingdom is like. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that I know a little of what the road to it is like. In my experience, it boils down to three things. One is to repent of what is mine to repent of and to amend my life accordingly. Another is to love actively and speak truthfully within the communities of which I am a part. And a third is to pray.
That last one covers a lot of ground. Sometimes it’s a lot of prayer in the usual sense: “Almighty God…” and “Lord Jesus…” and “Our Father….” Sometimes I let the psalms do the talking, or just reach into my memory for something from the Book of Common Prayer. Sometimes I just weep. Or just listen. Or just say I’m sorry. Sometimes I feel like cussing, so I talk to St. Elizabeth instead and ask her to sort it out with God on my behalf. (As our congregation’s patron, she is sort of like my big sister. I call her Liz. This arrangement works for us.) I recommend all of these.
I wish I had more to offer. All I really want you to hear is that I know that you do your job because you believe it is good and necessary that you do it. I know, too, that who you are as God’s child and who you are when you’re in uniform are neither entirely the same person nor entirely different people. Finally, I know that for a lot of you your uniform feels like the cross you’ve been nailed to all summer.
As you struggle with all this, remember that the experience of the cross is where real power is. The crucifixions we experience do not have to end in bitterness, with our willfully holding closed the doors of the tomb. By the power of God they can and do lead to resurrection. New life, new hope, new freedom. But the dying always comes first. We are buried with Christ so that we might be raised with Him. This is not how the world is supposed to work, but it is the world we have made. On Good Friday, God, in the severest of mercies, revealed to us just how broken of a place this is.
Thankfully, in His freedom, God responds to the crucifixions we inflict on each other today in the same way He did on the first Easter: by raising us from the grave, by appearing miraculously with us inside all of our locked and fearful doors, by turning wounds we have both suffered and inflicted into the scars of a living and abiding testimony to His love. This is how we are remade into more perfect images of Him. And slowly, slowly, this is how God remakes the world into a place where crucifixions no longer happen to anyone. God is relentless in this.
I look forward to the Last Great Day when jobs like yours and jobs like mine are no longer necessary. When that Day comes, I think it will be nice to change clothes for good. To leave our uniforms hanging in the closet at the end of the age.
Until then, I am grateful that you continue to suit up. I continue to suit up for you, too.