Grand Rapids police clad in riot gear defend a street entrance during a night of protests and rioting on May 30 (Gabriel Harnau)
Grand Rapids police clad in riot gear defend a street entrance during a night of protests and rioting on May 30

Gabriel Harnau

Reformed and always reforming… the police?

Why Reformed Christians should listen to calls to defund the police

June 24, 2020

The first time one of my graduates called to defund the police, I dismissed the idea immediately. Even as more graduates embraced calls to defund or abolish the police, I continued to dismiss such narratives as naïve or harmful.  However, I knew these graduates were intelligent, loving people.  Calvin University had equipped them to think deeply, act justly, and live wholeheartedly.  The Holy Spirit convicted me.  

Reformed Christians should wholeheartedly embrace calls for radical police reform, and recognize that calls to defund or abolish the police stand in the tradition of the Radical Reformers.  My dismissal of such calls reflected a failure to understand my own tradition, a failure of my catechesis, a lack of theological imagination.  It also reflected a failure to listen to those most affected by this issue, and let them lead.

I will use Grand Rapids as an example here, but it is representative of any number of cities.  Probably your city.  In my classes, I warn students when things are “about to get really Reformed,” out of recognition that students may come from other traditions, or no faith tradition.  This is a good place for that warning.  I am writing particularly, but not exclusively, to white Reformed people like me. 

My Catechesis

Growing up, I celebrated Reformation Day in my Christian schools.  We studied Luther, Calvin, and Kuyper, but I was taught almost nothing about the Radical Reformers: the Hutterites, Mennonites, and Amish.  I was taught that being Reformed meant that we are agents of renewal, that we work from inside institutions to reform them.  

Grand Rapids-born Breonna Taylor, who was killed by police on Mar 13, was mourned by the community at a vigil downtown (Joseph Kuilema)

The Radical Reformers had a very different perspective.  They rejected both the Catholic church’s cozy relationship to the state and the parallel structures they saw Protestants establishing.  They chose not to disengage but to disentangle themselves from systems in order to be a living witness to an alternative reality.  If they could not participate with integrity, they accepted any consequence, even death.  

Calls to defund or abolish the police are calls to disentangle from a system with racist roots and imagine alternative realities.  Even Reformed Christians who feel these calls are too radical should respect this position.  After decades of failed police reform, the onus is on those who engage with the system to demonstrate that it’s possible to reform fallen institutions.  And let us in no way doubt that these are fallen institutions, staffed by fallen people. Fallen is important language, because these systems are not “broken.”  They are, as Michelle Alexander and others have pointed out, functioning as intended.

Reformed Christians also reject any discussion of “bad apples” in a good system.  Each of us, to borrow from Calvin’s Institutes, produces evil “as a lighted furnace sends forth sparks and flames, or a fountain without ceasing pours out water” (2.1.8).  Derek Chauvin was born with “a natural tendency to hate God and… neighbor” (Heidelberg Q&A 5).  Like you, like me, like victims of police brutality.  A Reformed catechesis therefore rejects any narrative which insists on the complete innocence of victims of police brutality as a prerequisite for empathy or action as absurd.

This is not in any way to equivocate between the actions of Derek Chauvin and George Floyd, between Ahmaud Arbery and the father and son who lynched him, between Breonna Taylor, who was born in Grand Rapids, and those who murdered her in her own home as she slept.  To say that everyone sins is not to collapse into an undifferentiated world filled with Christian platitudes about how “all sin is equal in God’s eyes,” where forgiveness comes without repentance, grace is cheap, and there is no justice.   The Belhar Confession, one of our contemporary testimonies, is clear “that God… is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor and the wronged.”  

We also believe that God created humanity “good and in his own image” (Q&A 6).  But no one, no institution, nothing, is totally good but God. To imagine that an institution is free from the corruption of sin and deserves our uncritical support is to create an idol.  Anyone who reads Romans 13 as advocating such blind adherence ignores the Belgic Confession’s call for the  state to build “a society that is pleasing to God” and that our obedience is limited to that which is “not in conflict with God’s Word.”

My City

I grew up not going to certain neighborhoods because they were “dangerous.”  No one ever explicitly said because they were Black, but they didn’t need to.  Grand Rapids is a “hyper-segregated” city, the 26th most-segregated city in a sample of more than a hundred. It was not until graduate school that I understood this segregation as a legacy of the Great Migration’s flight from lynching, of redlining and racial covenants.  The government created this segregation, and when it resulted in the widespread poverty that exploded in the summer of 1967, decided that policing was the right response.  Law and order. 

Today, 21% of Grand Rapids residents live in poverty, but for Black residents, it’s 47%.  Black poverty is worse now than it was in 1967.  Even as Grand Rapids gentrifies, Black neighborhoods get the least investment.  Poverty, independent of race, predicts violent crime.  Poor urban Blacks experience similar rates of violent crime as poor rural whites (the latter rate is higher), but studies show respondents still associate violent crime with Black people.  

Meanwhile, the Grand Rapids Police Department (GRPD) is disproportionately white.  In 2017 the force was 89.5% white, 4% Black.  The city is 68% white, 19% Black.  These disparities exist all over the nation.  The vast majority of officers, 83%, are not residents of Grand Rapids.  There is evidence that GRPD engages in racial profiling.  A 2015 study found that Black motorists were twice as likely to be pulled over as white motorists.

until we can identify Christ with a ‘recrucified’ black body hanging from a lynching tree, there can be no genuine understanding of Christian identity in America

— James Cone


We spend a tremendous amount of money on the police.  Grand Rapids is budgeting $56 million for 2020.  The City Charter itself mandates that “Not less than 32%” of the budget be spent on policing.  Nationwide, we now spend twice as much on law and order  as we do on social welfare programs.  

As a social worker, I believe shifting resources to education,mental health, affordable housing, substance abuse, or domestic violence would keep us safer.  No one wants violent crime, but Grand Rapids has chosen not to implement evidence-based violence reduction programs despite proposals to do so.  You may imagine that police spend most of their energy on violent crime, but 95% of arrests in the U.S. are for non-violent offenses.  

Policing itself is a relatively recent development, evolving from slave patrols and privatized security forces protecting the property of capitalists.  The modern militarized version is even more recent, emerging from our failed War on Drugs.  

Theological Imagination

I realize that beyond my ignorance of this history, part of my inability to understand the deep distrust and profound anger of my Black brothers and sisters towards the police flowed from my misunderstanding of who God is, especially as revealed on the cross.

I first read the Black liberation theologian James Cone because of his influence Allan Boesack, one of the authors of the Belhar Confession.  Cone writes:

“Until we can see the cross and the lynching tree together, until we can identify Christ with a ‘recrucified’ black body hanging from a lynching tree, there can be no genuine understanding of Christian identity in America.” (p. xv)

I could not see this. For much of my life, I was ignorant of the nation’s legacy of lynching.  That history became very real in 2015, when I had the honor of visiting the Equal Justice Initiative.  I met Anthony Ray Hinton, who had been released earlier that year after 28 years on death row.  He was an innocent man who would have been executed.  Lynched.  Later, in one of the most somber moments of my life, I helped collect dirt from the site of a lynching.

Grand Rapids is among the cities where police violence against peaceful protesters has been reported (Gabriel Harnau)

Lynching, like crucifixion, is state sanctioned violence designed to terrorize oppressed populations in order to ensure that they remain cheap labor for those regarded as full citizens of the Empire.  The Pax Romana and the Pax Americana were built on brutality, whether at the hands of the Roman legions or the hands of our increasingly militarized, “imperial,” police.  

Such state sanctioned violence is often encouraged, even blessed, by the religious establishment.  Innocence is irrelevant.  These are public acts designed to be widely viewed, whether on a hill in Georgia or Golgotha.  They are immortalized in stories, or on postcards, or videos on the internet.  I imagine you have watched videos of some of the hundreds of Black men, women, and children killed by police, the hundreds more brutalized protesting those deaths. Do you see Christ?  

I try to no longer watch such dehumanizing videos.  But Grand Rapids has them.  Black boys lined up face down on the pavement for matching a description.  Teens arrested at gunpoint for “failing to cooperate.”  Officers placing a weeping 11 year old girl in handcuffs because they thought she was an adult.  An officer shattering a car window, removing the driver, and beating him as he screams that his child is inside the car.  

Can we read these accounts and see Christ?  Or must we watch the videos, put our hands in the wounds, before we can say, like Thomas, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).

According to the Word of God

I know police have helped apprehend dangerous criminals.  Saved lives.  There have been acts of service and compassion.  If reading this has made you angry, I ask you to sit in that space.  Ask yourself “what would it mean if this were even partially true?”  

I have never had a problem with the system of policing.  But many of my Black brothers and sisters tell me it’s killing them. 

You may believe that policing can be reformed from within.  But Minneapolis aggressively pursued police reform for decades.  They have come to the conclusion that it is time to reimagine community safety.  The Radical Reformers would want nothing to do with a system of state sanctioned violence, but the history of the wider Reformation is itself a testament to the fact that some institutions are beyond reforming from within.  

Any change must be radical. Radical from the Latin radix, the roots.  Policing grew out of the ground of slavery and white supremacy, watered by the interests of the wealthy.  George Floyd and Breonna Taylor are the strange fruit of that tree.  As Jesus says, “a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 7:18). 

The Bible also provides a model for reimagining a failed community program.  In Acts 6, we read of a dispute between Hellenistic and Hebraic Christians over a program to feed widows.  The Greek speaking Christians tell the Jewish Apostles their widows are not being fed.  The Apostles are convicted, and in response turn the entire program over to a group of seven Christians, notably all with Greek names.  Like the Hebraic widows who were getting fed, I have never had a problem with the system of policing.  But many of my Black brothers and sisters tell me it’s killing them. 

Members of the most affected community are calling for change, and I need to listen and let them lead. I cannot know Christ if I refuse to see him in the recrucified Black body. I cannot proclaim that Black Lives Matter while supporting a system that disproportionately takes them.

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Comments (10)

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  • R

    Rick schaafsmaJul 23, 2020 at 9:23 pm

    Etc.. a question..
    If the police departments are defunded…
    What will replace police officers who will be laid off? And who are you going to call when street crime increases.. because it certainly will..there will not be enough cops on the street..and the group who will be most affected are the inner city residents…based on my experience of working the inner city for 14 years.. the majority of the inner city residents count on the police to be there to serve and protect them…and that is what we really did…
    The small number of dissidents who are riling things not represent those people.. with whom I worked for..
    During time on the street developed several meaningful and positive relationships..across the gender/ race/ age/economic spectrum.. some have lasted to this day..(50 years ago when I started as a cop..)
    and the issue of race rarely was a factor during police- citizen contacts I made.. regardless of the circumstances..( in the thousands during a 27 year stint)..
    All of us regarded police work as a noble calling (. Not just a job..) like none other..and it was..

  • R

    Rick schaafsmaJul 23, 2020 at 8:58 pm

    A suggestion.. if you would like to talk with a group of area retired police officers.. who are in the process of putting together a position statement regards to the turmoil/ unrest/ outright disrespect of police officers & the efforts to destroy our history.. please contact me..we would welcome a chat to discuss viewpoints..and we will include context & substance for whatever comes up regards to examples discussed…
    we are gathering support for our efforts from a diverse group of individuals.. locally & from around the area..
    Our group has over 100 years of combined police experience & service to our communities..( served 1960s-1990s)..
    And we.. to this day.. continue to serve our communities in a variety of capacities..
    I. E. .. deacon in the Catholic Church/ volunteer builder with habitat for humanity/ myself.. volunteer area schools.. community organizations..engaged in a. Variety of projects..
    So cop work has not totally defined us.. never did…never will…
    And we will be direct and upfront with answers to any questions you may entertain…
    One more thing: any one of us..without hesitation or question ..while on the job.. would have offered up our life for anyone.. to protect them..regardless..
    Hope to hear from you✝️
    Thanks for your time… Rick

  • G

    Gordon GriffinJul 1, 2020 at 4:33 pm

    What a competent and well researched and believable picture of Grand Rapids! Unfortunately most white folks don’t see it. They have never thought of viewing our fair city from the viewpoint of anyone who is not like “white” like they are.

  • Y

    Yolanda C. BritoJun 29, 2020 at 5:50 pm

    Es tan importante para mi leer este trabajo. Hemos estado al tanto de lo que sucede. Acá, aunque se mantienen los rasgos esenciales del racismo, la praxis diaria es diferente, y aunque sé poco sobre el tema, quiero yo también ver el rostro de Cristo en el negro sin que me incluya entre sus enemigos. Gracias, Deker.

  • T

    Tom EggebeenJun 29, 2020 at 11:20 am

    Many thanks for this piece … your comments gave me a great deal of substance in thinking about “defunding the police..” It must be done, and your comments about the “radical Reformation” confirms that some things have to be rejected because the system they represent can’t be reformed.

  • F

    Fenna DiephuisJun 29, 2020 at 9:42 am

    Thank you Joe Kuilema for owning the “white fragility” that keeps white people from reforming, dare I say “repenting”? If you haven’t yet, I invite you to meet Resmaa Menakem,, who as a trauma therapist, contends rightfully that White people hold what he calls white body trauma that they culturally acquired, which is different than black body trauma which they culturally acquired, and police body trauma which also holds its unique “Pathology” . (My word.) He teaches that each of these deeply conditioned responses must be addressed by each group collectively if things are going to change from the inside out. He has a free course on line which explains his approach. He also has a more in depth course for $117, which I see as an opportunity to pay black people for their insights and knowledge. I see him as a radical reformer! I am just beginning to develop a course for whites based on the principles of sensory motor body centered therapy in order to “reform” our white supremacy. Thank you again for connecting to your ferocious heart in these matters!

  • M

    Michelle GritterJun 28, 2020 at 11:34 pm

    I appreciated reading this piece! I learned things. I was asked to learn more things (and I will!). Mostly, I was deeply moved and convicted. The parallel between the lynching tree and cross is undeniable. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  • N

    Natsun Eisen '14Jun 27, 2020 at 11:12 pm

    This piece contains factual errors about the shooting of Breonna Taylor. These errors are either a product of lazy fact-checking or an intentional misrepresentation of reality. Either way, it demonstrates a level of bias that makes the contributor’s opinion and the piece’s statements of fact very difficult to place much faith in.

  • M

    Mark AlanJun 26, 2020 at 11:34 pm

    While you have used many impressive words and long winded theology and even catechism; let me clue you in on some reality. Defunding the police will put you and the black community in even more danger. When the police stop being proactive the voilent crime rises. Criminals rejoice at the notion of less police officers. You gave a few examples of incidents in Grand Rapids without stating all of the facts. The media knew all the facts and the stats but when it doesn’t fit the narrative it isn’t reported. Leaving out all the facts is always the best way to make the police look bad. Do you think that kids have never possessed guns before? I took loaded guns off 13 year olds before. I also had a 14 year old shoot 2 adults. Both were fortunate to live.
    GR is one of the best trained departments in the state. They respond to calls for service, sometimes they involve resistance. Thousands of police contacts occur every month with few actual controversial incidents. The ones you spoke of were spaced out in years not days like some would have you believe.
    You added a picture where it made it sound like GR initiated violence to the peaceful protest. Make no mistake, peaceful it was not. It is not peaceful when the police were non stop insulted and had objects thrown at them. Did you know that the rioters actually attempted to enter and take over the police department? Did you know about the pipe bomb that was thrown into the SOS building? 7 police cruisers were destroyed…numerous assaults…camera man even! The police did not start anything. But of course the narrative sounds better blaming the police.
    Do you know what has happened since the riot? I’m guessing “no”. Well, there has been shootings and more shootings. I think 5 murders in last 3 weeks. Areas of Grand Rapids with groups of 300 plus people blocking streets and taking over areas on the weekends. Groups of youth breaking into car dealerships…like 36 cars stolen in last several weeks. Cars then used in several “other” crimes.
    But, defunding the police a good idea, right? Since 2016 GR has held a recruit class in order to get more diversity on the department. Guess what? If the police department is defunded then the gains made in diversity will be the first ones laid off!
    Do black lives matter? Or do they matter more when they are killed by the police? Any outcry for the 3 year old killed in Chicago last weekend? The other 13 lives? Protests? Anybody???
    The police are human and humans make mistakes. Why do all the police get thrown under the bus for the mistakes of a few? You then all think the whole system needs to change. GR has made strides forward and defunding them will actually take steps backward. The spike in crime will continue to go up and people like you promoting this eill be partially to blame.

    Maybe before writing such a biased article you should seek out both sides involved first. I could add Proverbs says that one party sounds right, until you hear the other party.

  • J

    Jeremy HeyboerJun 24, 2020 at 3:05 pm

    Thank you for this. Well crafted and challenging. Especially grateful for “I cannot know Christ if I refuse to see him in the recrucified Black body.”