Blessed Be the State's Punitive Priesthood

Pastor Jay Dennis, who  presides over the First Baptist Church on the Mall, a large and growing “mega-church” in Lakeland, Florida, urges his congregation to see police officers as angelic beings bearing a divine commission to impose summary punishment. They are to be obeyed, prayed for, and never spoken of other than in tones of chastened gratitude and unalloyed reverence.

“It grieves me on the one hand, and makes me angry on the other hand, when I hear the criticism, and disrespect towards, and violence directed at those in law enforcement,” the pastor declared during his “Law Enforcement Encouragement Sunday” sermon on October 4.“We want law enforcement to know that First Baptist Church on the Mall supports you one hundred percent, and is committed to pray continually for you.”

Cop-worship Sunday is becoming a common observance at American Christian churches — particularly Republican-leaning Evangelical congregations, whose communicants are especially receptive to the oft-repeated and patently false idea that we are witnessing a “War on Cops.” Pastor Dennis dutifully retailed that claim, urging his congregation to “Pray for a hedge of protection around their vehicles, that angels will guard and shield them from danger.”

Pastor Dennis began his homily, in predictable fashion, by citing the thirteenth chapter of the New Testament’s Epistle to the Romans, which is widely (and, according to some orthodox Christian clergy, mistakenly) construed as counseling unqualified submission to political rulers.

“`Do you want to have no fear of authority?’” asked Dennis, reading from the modern language translation of the passage.””` Do what is good and you will have praise from the same…. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing.’”

“When Paul speaks of `authorities,’ by application that includes law enforcement officers,” Dennis told the congregation. “So here is the idea:  When you obey the law, you have nothing to worry about; however, if you do wrong, and if you break the law, you should be fearful. The sword here is the instrument of punishment, and today that would be their weapons. God has given to these officers great authority that must always be respected.”

The problems with Pastor Dennis’s state-centered exegesis are plentiful, beginning with the fact that most government edicts cannot be obeyed without violating what ethical people – of whatever religious or philosophical background – recognize as the paramount moral law, often called the Golden Rule.

During the 1850s, to cite one obvious example, tens of thousands of Americans of good conscience – including some Christian clergymen — systematically violated the Fugitive Slave Law by refusing to allow federal marshals to abduct black individuals and deliver them into the custody of other human beings who claimed to own them.  Many other Christian clergymen of that era condemned this as rebellion against “authority” and the “rule of law.”Had he been living at the time, Pastor Dennis – on the available evidence – would have be found among the latter.

Secondly, it is impossible for people to obey the “law” as the government defines it. The same Epistle to the Romans cited by Pastor Dennis explains that the Old Testament law was to reveal sin (Romans 3:20) – that is, to show all of the manifold ways that fallen human beings offend their perfect Creator, so as to impress upon us our dependence on His grace.

In what Christian believers should regard as a grave blasphemy, the State presumes to the same authority, without extending the offer of forgiveness.

As constitutional attorney Harvey Silverglate has documented, each American, during a typical day, commits at least three acts that could be construed as felonies – even when nobody else is harmed, or any property damaged. All that is necessary is a sufficiently ambitious prosecutor aided by a law enforcement officer willing to enforce the “law” even when doing so is incompatible with justice.

In the eyes of our self-exalted rulers, all of us are criminals who fall short of the glory of the State, and are in proper peril of being detained, shackled, caged, or summarily killed by those who give tangible form to the State’s abstract righteousness. Pastor Dennis ratifies this perverse and idolatrous notion through his his casual endorsement of the idea that police are endowed with the authority to inflict summary punishment. This is the import of the pastor’s statement that the weapons carried by police are the equivalent of the “sword” that serves as “the instrument of punishment.”

Assuming any legitimate role exists for government-employed police officers, it would be purely reactive in nature – investigating criminal offenses and, where appropriate, detaining people suspected of committing them.

If police officers have unqualified power to impose punishment on people who have done no injury to the persons or property of others, why shouldn’t they be feared, and perhaps hated, rather than respected?

In his zeal to preach the gospel of submission to state “authority,” Pastor Dennis – who is also a notable anti-pornography campaigner — minimized a multitude of sins committed by the Lakeland PD, including a huge sexual misconduct scandal implicating several ranking officers. He likewise chose to ignore numerous incidents in which innocent people have been beaten and even mutilated by the LPD’s ministering angels of divine justice – but Pastor Dennis appears to believe that nobody on the receiving end of state-consecrated violence can be regarded as truly innocent.

Florida Southern College student Joanna Youssef — to cite one among many suitable examples— was not committing a crime when she was encountered by two of Lakeland’s exalted emissaries of the divine state.  According to Pastor Dennis, that meant that she had nothing to fear. When Youssef got into an argument with a friend, she attracted the attention of LDP Officer Nicholas Ivancevich, who forced her to the ground and handcuffed her. While she was prone, shackled, and helpless, a police dog named Quanto escaped from a patrol vehicle and attacked her, rending her flesh and leaving her scarred and traumatized.

The victim was charged with “resisting arrest without violence,” but the county attorney dropped the case. A typically perfunctory internal review by the department found that neither of the officers involved in the episode broke department policies, and dismissed the mangling of Youssef as “unfortunate.”

Such “unfortunate” incidents will happen, Pastor Dennis might concede, but it’s not as if the officers had been doing something genuinely scandalous, such as looking at porn. If the latter is true, it’s only because they were too busy producing the equivalent of porn to be watching any.

For several years, a married civilian LPD employee named Susan Eberle was used as a sexual plaything by several officers. Eberle describes herself as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. She also concedes that at least some of the behavior in which she was involved as consensual. Much of it, however, was involuntary, and some of it constituted sexual assault.

An investigation by the state attorney’s office found that Eberle’s efforts to get help were thwarted by superiors intent on covering up the crimes and protecting the offenders.

According to the state attorney’s report, Eberle described an incident in which LPD gang investigator Dan Jonas “asked her to urinate in a cup so he could drink it.” The officer also sexted Eberle a self-portrait in which he was wearing women’s underwear. The report abounds in material that sounds as if it could have been rummaged out of the Marquis de Sade’s wastebasket.

“As many as ten sworn LPD officers have engaged in sex acts and sexually suggestive behavior while on duty over the past seven years with an LPD civilian employee,” concluded the report filed by Jerry Hill, the State Attorney for Polk County. Seven of the officers admitted to the charges under oath; two others offered partial admissions. Several of them “are high ranking officers … directly responsible for training other officers at LPD.  While some of the acts were consensual, many others were acts of sexual violation that “would potentially constitute felony and misdemeanor crimes as defined by Florida State Statute.”

Other acts “likely rose to a level of sexual harassment and certainly are considered unbecoming conduct in the workplace.” Just as seriously, other LPD employees “failed to intervene and stop criminal misconduct that was reported to them…. Alleged sexual crimes went uninvestigated, and evidence was lost.”

For that reason, no criminal charges were ever filed against any of the officers implicated in the scandal. Hill comments that the investigation of Eberle’s allegations “sheds some light on the serious shortcomings [of the LPD] in the areas of traffic stops, search and seizure, thoroughness of investigations, preparedness for trial, and complying with Florida Records law.”

“Had these members your department been more focused on the important responsibilities of law enforcement, rather than pursuing sexual encounters with a civilian analyst, the LPD might not be in the condition it is today,” Hill admonished then- Chief Lisa Womack.

One collateral result of the investigation of Eberle’s complaint was the decision to dismiss scores of criminal cases in which the stainless exemplars of civic righteousness in the LPD had perjured themselves.

Several officers were cashiered as a result of the scandal. Eberle, significantly, was one of them: She was fired in September 2013 for “conduct unbecoming, untruthfulness, and required conduct and cooperation” in the investigation of her own claims. This means, in effect, that she was punished for the refusal of corrupt superiors to take her complaints seriously. Last April the City of Lakeland quietly paid Eberle $28,500 to withdraw a discrimination complaint she had filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

To his credit, when the LPD’s institutional abscess ruptured in July 2013, Pastor Dennis said that the “light needs to be shown in this situation.” While he experienced a “gamut of emotions,” the pastor continued, “sadness prevails.”

While sadness is understandable, outrage would be more appropriate, and less likely to be redeemed in the coin of cheap grace. The corruption disclosed in the report had metastasized into the marrow of the LPD. Merely excising a handful of employees – including both the chief and the whistleblower – wouldn’t be an effective cure. Little more than two years later, Pastor Dennis appears to consider the department fully rehabilitated, and worthy of something perilously akin to worship.

“There is evil in this world, there are evil people in this world, and they’re everywhere,” Pastor Dennis told his audience, encouraging them to believe that the state’s vessels of sanctified violence are an exception to that rule. During his prayer at the close of the sermon Dennis asked for “a revolution of respect for those who protect and serve us.”

Significantly, he didn’t request divine intervention that would miraculously transform police into actual protectors and servants, nor did he plead for a “hedge of protection” for innocent and helpless people who endure the ministrations of the State’s emissaries of violence.