On May 25, a nation reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic was horrified and shaken by the death of George Floyd, when a brutal confrontation escalated after he allegedly passed a counterfeit $20 bill. Floyd, a paroled felon and the father of five children and two grandchildren, had lost his job as a security guard as a result of the pandemic. But this time it was not a virus that was the culprit, but a police officer. Derek Chauvin, a 19-year veteran of the Minneapolis Police Department, was charged with murder after pressing a knee on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes, asphyxiating him as he lay face-down on the ground. Now, with protests and violence convulsing major cities, some are demanding that police departments across the United States be defunded and even disbanded.
As Christians, we believe in the blessings of a lawful society. God does not condone confusion and chaos (1 Corinthians 14:33). His creation is one of order and harmony. We follow Paul’s guidance: “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God” (Romans 13:1). The Apostle says plainly that the governing authority in our society “does not bear the sword in vain” (v. 4). And, as Jesus Christ noted, His kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36), and we wisely seek to avoid pointless debates about reshaping a society permeated by wrong thinking about human relationships. As King David noted, “If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (Psalm 11:3).
Knowing these truths, calls to “Defund the Police” can alarm us, because we do not see around us anything close to the effort it would take to establish a truly godly world in which police would not be necessary. Short of the return of Jesus Christ to reshape the very foundations of the world, removing the police seems very clearly a fantasy. Yet, as we celebrate these Fall Festivals, we express our absolute faith in the fact that Jesus Christ most certainly is returning!
So, while defunding the police seems a delusional goal in today’s world—as some cities are now learning firsthand—what about the world of the future?
As we contemplate the confusion around us, we may wonder, Will police be part of the Kingdom of God on earth? It is easy for us to assume that fundamental elements of today’s world will be present in tomorrow’s world, though perhaps “improved” or “purified.” We know that God’s Law will guide the Kingdom of God, under the loving rule of its King, Jesus Christ. So, will there be a “police force” to enforce those laws? What do the laws given to ancient Israel teach us about policing? The truth of the matter may surprise both supporters and critics of today’s police!
“Community Policing” Has Ancient Biblical Roots
Law enforcement has not always meant a centralized force of full-time enforcers. With a code of laws that was spelled out for everyone, every Israelite was responsible for living accordingly. Furthermore, being an honest witness was an important obligation of a good citizen. One of the Ten Commandments clearly defines being a false witness as sin (Exodus 20:16).
Leviticus 5:1 goes further, stating, “If you are called to testify about something you have seen or that you know about, it is sinful to refuse to testify, and you will be punished for your sin” (New Living Translation). Recognizing that witnesses can be mistaken in what they have seen or heard, multiple witnesses were required in capital punishment cases (Deuteronomy 17:6). And to ensure that witnesses take their role seriously, Scripture mandates that false witnesses suffer the same penalty that would have been applied to the accused had they been deemed guilty (Deuteronomy 19:18–19).
Elders of each city, not a separate cadre of full-time enforcers, were responsible for the enforcement of justice, presenting cases as necessary to the priests and judges. Deuteronomy 21:1–9 details what to do in the case of unsolved murders, and the elders and judges were to take the lead in determining how to proceed. In Deuteronomy 19:11–12, we read that the elders of a city were responsible for bringing a murderer to face his penalty. Yet the one who was to obtain justice for the victim was not an agent of the city government, but a close relative of the victim who was called the gaal, meaning redeemer or avenger. It was his duty to pursue the perpetrator of the murder and execute the punishment, and the elders were to assist him in seeing justice done. But it was imperative that no partiality be shown. In Leviticus 24:22, we read, “You shall have one standard for stranger and citizen alike; for I the Lord am your God” (JPS Tanakh). Deuteronomy 16 gives a similar instruction: “You shall appoint judges and officers in all your gates, which the Lord your God gives you, according to your tribes, and they shall judge the people with just judgment. You shall not pervert justice; you shall not show partiality, nor take a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and twists the words of the righteous” (Deuteronomy 16:18–19).
A sense of community obligation was a cornerstone of peace and well-being, according to God’s instructions for the Israelites. Exodus 21:29 implies that neighbors should let each other know if their animal is acting dangerously. Exodus 23:4 instructs a citizen to return a lost animal to its owner if it is discovered. Exodus 22:4 describes how restitution for theft of an animal should be made by requiring the thief to pay double the value of the animal to its owner—the implication is that someone discovered the thief and confronted him with his crime.
What is the point? Reading through the laws and statutes of ancient Israel makes it clear that neighbors and leaders of the community—not a professional police force—bore the obligation for each other’s safety, security, and well-being. But this decentralized community approach to law enforcement is not what most of the world’s kingdoms and empires have chosen.
A Short History of Policing
Of course, no human society has been able to completely prevent crime. This has been true from the beginning. Cain committed the first murder by killing his brother Abel; since then, mankind’s history has been one of crime and violence, and of efforts to control and punish the perpetrators of these actions. Organized police forces date back to the days not long after Noah’s Flood. The Encyclopedia Britannica gives a fascinating description of the development of institutional policing in its entry “The History of Policing in the West,” available at Britannica.com. Here is a brief summary.
The first policing organization is believed to have been created in Egypt, with “[t]he empire… divided into 42 administrative jurisdictions; for each jurisdiction the pharaoh appointed an official who was responsible for justice and security. He was assisted by a chief of police, who bore the title sab heri seker, or ‘chief of the hitters’ (a body of men responsible for tax collecting, among other duties).”
Ancient Greece and Rome had police forces responsible for maintaining peace and order in public places, fire protection, and the prevention of violence in the streets. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, organized urban police forces apparently disappeared from western Europe, though they continued in the Eastern (Byzantine) Empire.
By approximately 1000 AD, policing in England was accomplished by community-based systems. Adult males were grouped into “tithings,” led by a “tithingman.” Ten of these groups were collected into a “hundred,” which in turn was included in a “shire” under a “shire-reeve.” This leader was responsible for administering justice in his “shire,” resulting in our modern county sheriff in England and the United States today. After the Norman conquest, “constables” were added—officers appointed to serve under the direction of sheriffs and responsible for overseeing night watchmen, among other duties. Yet, as late as 1285, when the Statute of Winchester was ratified, peace and order in the community was the duty of all adult males. This statute, for example, authorized any citizen to arrest a lawbreaker. It also required everyone to take part in a posse to apprehend a criminal when a “hew and cry” was raised. This system functioned in England for centuries and was exported to its colonies.
On the European continent, between 1536 and 1544, France developed its own system of social order, particularly to protect its citizens from disbanded, renegade soldiers. The solution was establishing a system of military officials called prévôts who sought out the bandits. In time, a need for urban policing led to a system established in Paris by King Louis XIV in 1666—in fact, giving us the word “police” that we use today. The French system inspired many of the elements of modern policing, including covert informers, a differentiation between serious and minor crimes, and public safety, as well as responsibility for morality and public health. The Industrial Revolution transformed policing even further, as did, in the United States, chattel slavery and immigration.
The Modern Challenge
While it helps to know the history of policing in order to understand how we arrived at our current approach, it is also important to clarify the challenges facing police institutions today.
Alex S. Vitale is a Professor of Sociology and Coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College with 30 years of experience in research, writing, and consulting with police departments on the topic of policing. His 2017 book The End of Policing takes aim at the factors that undermine the efforts of police departments around the world—and the ineffectual solutions that have been promoted. For example, while some insist that the solution to police bias is to recruit more officers of color, Vitale writes that this has not been the case. Even as the racial composition of U.S. police forces tend to correspond well to the racial composition of the country—even leaning toward higher minority representation in the largest departments—use of force remains about the same: “There is now a large body of evidence measuring whether the race of individual officers affects their use of force. Most studies show no effect. More distressingly, a few indicate that black officers are more likely to use force or make arrests, especially of black civilians” (pp. 11–12).
Vitale contends that the solution to the problem of policing in the United States requires more than imposing quotas upon police departments. It also involves dealing with the “mission drift” that has expanded the role of police departments. For example, police have often become responsible for providing security and safety in schools. He writes, “in the 2013–14 academic year, there were more than forty-three thousand school-based police officers in the United States. Over 40 percent of all schools now have police officers assigned to them, 69 percent of whom engage in school discipline enforcement rather than just maintaining security and enforcing the law” (p. 55).
Their role in managing people with mental illness (PMI) has been dramatically expanded. According to Vitale,
… studies suggest that anywhere from 5 to 20 percent of all US police incidents involve a PMI, and that these incidents take longer to resolve and are more likely to result in arrest. In addition, the number of incarcerated PMI has grown dramatically. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) found that 11 million people a year are admitted to US jails; of them, 15 percent of men and 30 percent of women have a serious mental illness. The largest inpatient psychiatric facilities in the United States are the LA County Jail, New York’s Rikers Island Jail, and Chicago’s Cook County Jail; the PMI in jails and prisons outnumber those in state hospitals ten to one (p. 80).
Many of these incidents end violently, as “one in every four police killings is of a person with a mental illness” (p. 77) according to Vitale.
Vitale identifies the fundamental problem when he writes, “Is asking the police to be the lead agency in dealing with homelessness, mental illness, school discipline, youth unemployment, immigration, youth violence, sex work, and drugs really a way to achieve a better society?” (p. 29). He correctly concludes that the police simply cannot be expected to solve all of society’s problems, and that we need “a society designed to meet people’s human needs” (p. 54).
But how might such a society be conceived and organized? God’s people know that a time is soon coming when His “firstfruits” will reign with Jesus Christ as kings and priests in the Kingdom of God. Is there any reason to think that we will do better in establishing peace, justice, and equity among peoples? Indeed there is, when we consult that much-ignored organizational manual—God’s word, the Bible.
The Ultimate Authority
The most important element missing from today’s criminal justice system is the One who created man, who knows the heart of man, and who will provide the ultimate authority during man’s 1,000-year rest. In Isaiah 9, we read about that ultimate authority, Jesus Christ:
For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David and over His kingdom, to order it and establish it with judgment and justice from that time forward, even forever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this (Isaiah 9:6–7).
The officers of any human government are subject to human nature, and the way that they wield their authority can therefore be called into question. Are they acting with honesty? Are they treating people with fairness and equity, no matter their skin color or economic level? Are they abusing their authority?
By contrast, the authority and integrity of Jesus Christ and those who are part of His government will not be in doubt. Christ, as loving King of all the earth, will have no ulterior motives for His actions and decisions. His only agenda will be to teach, protect, and bring prosperity to His subjects, and His righteous and purely motivated mind will be reflected in those who serve under His leadership. Isaiah prophesied of this future time: “Instead of bronze I will bring gold, instead of iron I will bring silver, instead of wood, bronze, and instead of stones, iron. I will also make your officers peace, and your magistrates righteousness” (Isaiah 60:17).
What a contrast to modern society’s idea that there is no absolute right or wrong! And what a contrast to enforcing law democratically, by the will of the people! In today’s society, police are not enforcing moral absolutes; they are expected to enforce whatever happens to be the legal letter of the law at the moment. Today’s police are expected to exercise governmental power, not God’s moral authority.
In God’s Kingdom, Christ will rule with absolute, righteous authority. And He will personally exercise that authority as needed. If individuals decide to disobey God’s instructions regarding the keeping of the Feast Days, for example, there will be consequences. “And it shall be that whichever of the families of the earth do not come up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, on them there will be no rain” (Zechariah 14:17).
The firstfruits who will be resurrected to serve as kings and priests will extend that authority and use it for good. As Isaiah wrote to those who will live during those days, “And though the Lord gives you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your teachers will not be moved into a corner anymore, but your eyes shall see your teachers. Your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way, walk in it,’ whenever you turn to the right hand or whenever you turn to the left” (Isaiah 30:20–21).
Those who serve under Jesus Christ as part of His government will preempt unrighteousness and explain true righteousness. But this instruction and correction will take place in a world that does not blur and confuse right and wrong, good and evil.
The Role of the Family
God commanded the Israelites to teach their children, “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God is giving you” (Exodus 20:12). Authority taught in the home becomes a building block in ensuring obedience to the laws of the land and to those who are implementing them. And God expects parents to use their authority to teach right and wrong to the next generation. Notice what God said about Abraham in Genesis 18:19: “For I have known him, in order that he may command his children and his household after him, that they keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice, that the Lord may bring to Abraham what He has spoken to him” (Genesis 18:19). God commanded the Israelites just as He taught Abraham. He said of His decrees, “You shall teach them to your children, speaking of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up” (Deuteronomy 11:19).
Fathers were commanded to take the lead in instruction and in enforcing discipline within their family. In the New Testament, after repeating God’s command to honor parents, Paul added, “And you, fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). It was not left to teachers, coaches, or policemen to teach children right from wrong and require adherence to that standard. The family role in the society was to instill and enforce those values. It was the job of the parents, led by the father.
This is a powerful contrast to our society. According to Fatherhood.org, one third of the children in America, around 24 million, do not have their father in the home. Children living without their father are at a greater risk of poverty, behavioral problems, abuse and neglect, and becoming pregnant as teenagers. They are more likely to abuse drugs, drop out of school, commit a crime, and go to prison. Indeed, “there is a ‘father factor’ in nearly all of the societal ills facing America today” (“The Father Absence Crisis in America”).
Instead of fostering hostility toward a patriarchal home, the culture of God’s Kingdom will encourage fathers to take an active, leading role as the authority figure in the family. That is a role that fathers—not police—can uniquely fill.
God intended marriage to create a loving and peaceful environment where children learn patience, kindness, and gentleness—not hostility and hatred. Husbands are commanded to love and cherish their wives, treating them as precious and valuable (Ephesians 5:25; 1 Peter 3:7). Wives are commanded to respect and follow their husbands (Ephesians 5:22). Sadly, many marriages become battlegrounds that require police intervention and sow seeds of future problems involving police in the shattered lives of mates and children. How sad it is that so many fathers have abdicated their responsibilities, leading some women to believe that fathers aren’t even necessary, while others try to take on the paternal role for themselves.
In the Kingdom of God, families following godly principles will provide training in peace, love, and respect for authority. Those lessons will be taught by husbands and wives—fathers and mothers—according to God’s design for the family.
May God Speed That Day!
We could say much more about God’s view of crime and punishment, and the topic makes for valuable and fascinating Bible study. Some details are plain as day, while others may remain unknown until we are in the Kingdom.
But as for the notion of “policing” God’s Kingdom? As we have seen, the enforcement of God’s benevolent laws, administered under the authority of the One who revealed them, will create an atmosphere far different from that of today’s world, in which carnal rulers use laws of their own devising to control their subjects. Administering God’s law will not be an exercise in brutality. Instead, it will be an exercise in service and loving care, when families are again the basic building block of society and citizens are taught their responsibility to care for one another—fulfilling the golden rule and loving their neighbors as themselves (Mark 12:31).