Clergy and Cops – Reflections on Power and Identity

I can’t imagine how hard it must be right now to be a police officer.  I really can’t.  Even though I know police officers, have worked with police officers, and have needed police officers, I can’t imagine what it must be like right now to be the focus of such relentless criticism and challenge.  The protests that have sprung up all around the nation in response to the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson MO are really directed at the police.  That’s what makes these protests different from all others I have been part of.  Generally the focus of protests I’ve participated in have been directed to some third party – a corporation, a politician, an organization – and the police have been present to keep order.  Now, however, they are actually the focus of the protests.  They stand in lines night after night facing protesters chanting at them, raining down anger and mistrust on them, committing acts of civil disobedience directed at them.  The goal of the protests is to change police decision-making, police culture, and police action, and to increase police accountability.

What this does is put the police in a dual role.  They are both playing their standard role of maintaining order when protests happen, and receiving and responding to actions that are directed at them.  I can’t imagine how hard that must be.

What I can relate to is being criticized as a leader.  I am a minister, and just like the cops, I experience all kinds of criticism coming towards me. It is part of the job.  And that’s o.k.  That’s what happens to leaders.  We put ourselves out there and that makes us vulnerable all the time.  Leaders become the focus of a lot of projection.  People see things in us that we have no control over and that we did not create.  Police and clergy are professions that have a lot of history and tradition layered onto them.  That history and tradition will impact how others respond to us.  There’s a reason I am often reluctant to tell people in my personal life what I do for a living.  90% of the time it changes how they look at me and how they act around me.  Their projections eliminate the possibility of true friendship.  I increasingly keep my profession to myself so that I can have friends, otherwise the projection is too strong and everything gets weird.  Although I do realize that by hiding such a huge part of who I am, they aren’t fully seeing me either, and the friendship is still skewed.

I bet this happens to cops all the time too.

One of our major coping mechanisms it to learn how not to buy into the projections.  They can be alluring and deadly.  If we buy into these projections, they will define us and they will destroy us.   Self-differentiation is absolutely essential for personal survival.  This means that sometimes you just have to be alright with people not liking you.  You have to be alright with disappointing people.  You have to be alright with toppling from the pedestal they put you on.  You have to do what you really believe is right, even if it means losing everything.  Cops and clergy face these situations all the time.

What I also have found over the years is that I more naturally gravitate to clergy as my first choice for friends.  They get me, they get what it’s like to have this job, they get the glory and the pain of it all, they get how driven we are and the pressures we live with.  There are things I don’t have to explain.   I don’t feel the pressure to hide who I am.  But it also means that my world gets smaller. I am less connected to the non-church world.  It becomes at times a self-referential circle.

I bet this happens to cops too, just like it happens to veterans and other vocations where the uniqueness of the experience draws you to those who share it.  You’re all shaped by the same war wounds.

Having said that, there is really no room for a victim complex in our work.  The reason so much is projected at us, and the reason that we are so often the focus of criticism, is because we do have power.  How we use that power can dramatically influence the lives of those we serve and lead.  It is our responsibility to always be vigilant in the use of the power that we have.  In my profession, most of the criticism in the last few decades has been directed at clergy sexual abuse.  Many clergy, including Unitarian Universalist clergy, did and do abuse their power in ways that have damaged countless adults and children.  Many churches are still recovering from these abuses.

What did this ask of clergy?  It asked us to open the wagon circle and let the world in, to open ourselves up to greater levels of accountability.  It wasn’t easy.  The first ministers to suggest a professional code for Unitarian Universalist ministers, and they were mostly women ministers, were called prudes and morality police by their male colleagues.   It wasn’t until enough men believed them and were willing to stand with them that real change happened.  It’s taken almost 30 years of cultural change for my professional association, the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association, to explicitly state in our code of professional conduct that it is unethical to have sexual relations with anyone we serve in a ministerial capacity.

Law enforcement is facing a similar challenge.  There is a deep and valid concern that police officers operate in a culture that encourages and legitimizes the use of force beyond what is necessary in a given situation.  There is also growing evidence that law enforcement is part of a system that is deeply racist.  Racial profiling is real and devastating.   Too many people are losing their lives.   Too many people are feeling preyed upon by those who should be protecting and serving them.  The damage is so deep and so sustained that it has fueled protests that haven’t stopped since August 9th and show no signs of abating.  The shooting of Michael Brown uncorked a well of pain and anger that has very legitimate roots.

I keep looking for some indication that the police are understanding this, that some of them are able to self-differentiate and really listen to the message that is being sent their way.  I keep looking for some indication that some cops understand that the protest they face, at its roots, is not about being anti-police.  None of the actions and the criticism, even the angriest of words, are about being anti-police.  It is actually being very much FOR the police.  What it is against is the abuse of power and authority.  When we call the police to a higher standard, when we ask for their policies and procedures to change, when we ask them to reconsider the way they make choices, when we ask them to welcome accountability, we are wanting them to become the fullest manifestation of what they are supposed to be, servants of the community.

I have heard stories of protesters standing face to face with police, right here in St. Louis, and police officers softly saying, “Keep doing what you’re doing.”  This gives me hope.  This week the Ethical Society of Police Officers, which represents the African American police officers in St. Louis, released a statement supporting the Rams players who held up their hands in the “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” position as they came onto the field.

This gives me hope.  I’m glad to hear these stories because it’s become very very easy to be judgmental of the police.  I need to know there are human beings behind the visors, the billy clubs, the bullet proof vests, the tear gas, and the rubber bullets who are capable of change.  It’s been really hard to see that.

I cannot overstate how much courage and humility it is going to take for those in law enforcement to be able to recognize what is happening and to be able to be part of what needs to change.  I don’t know if they can do it.  I suppose that like all human beings, some will and some won’t.  I have to hope that enough police officers can do this work, but I have no illusions about how hard it will be and what it will ask them to give up.  I can see them circling the wagons and I recognize it for what it is, because we clergy circle the wagons too.  It’s a form of self-preservation that is fueled by fear.

Sometimes the answer is not to circle the wagons.  The answer is to open up and to become vulnerable, to welcome accountability.  It means giving up some power.  It means giving up the projections.  It means giving up some of what it means to be a police officer.  It means allowing a certain form of police identity to die.

That’s really scary.

But this is what I hope enough police officers will be able to see.  When they give up the power they think they have now, they can claim a very different kind of power –   the power of relationship, the power of partnership, the power of mutuality, the power of community, the power that comes through building respect and trust.  This is actually a much stronger form of power.  If the police can see the incredible opportunity in this moment, we have the chance of saving the hearts of our police officers, the bodies of black and brown people, and the soul of our nation.

Please tell me this isn’t a pipe dream.


About kristataves

I am a Unitarian Universalist minister serving the Unitarian Church of Quincy IL. St. Louis is my residence. I am a dual American and Canadian citizen living in the great state of Missouri and building my life in this wonderful and sometimes very frustrating state.
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3 Responses to Clergy and Cops – Reflections on Power and Identity

  1. Bruce MacKenzie says:

    A fine blog. I appreciate your adding light, not just heat, to the discussion. But I think it’s worth pointing out that the consequences of “becoming vulnerable” are quite different for the police officer than for the clergy. (If you’ve ever done a “ride along” in the city, you know that these guys really do put their lives on the line every day.) E.J. Dionne says in today’s PD, “If the NRA didn’t enforce an effective gag rule on discussions of firearms, we would explore the relationship between the wide availability of dangerous weapons and the militarization of our police forces.” (And the mindset that goes with that arming.)

  2. irrevspeckay says:

    Krista — thank you so much for this beautiful, thoughtful and necessary piece that helps us be true to our faith, to what compassion asks of us, what makes our work and efforts spiritual activism, not social activism. This will be welcomed in some places (likely cautiously) and considered misguided in others. Please keep at the amazing work you are doing and are showing others how to do. From me, a future UU minister.

  3. Jill Johnson-Young says:

    In all of the discussion on this topic including in my church, I’ve waited for acknowledgment that there is a law enforcement officer injured or killed every 18 minutes in our country. I’ve waited to see any bit of response to the recent cold blooded murders of officers during this same time period. Officers working hard to protect their community who never get to go home. I’ve heard not a word. I’ve heard calls for attending protests that in my community have included chants of “pick up a gun and make a pig run.” I haven’t heard anyone supporting a fundraiser for a local cop who is now partially paralyzed after being shot on duty. My many law enforcement friends, and their kids, are hearing themselves being called racist. Half of them are African American. Continuing to blame law enforcement as a whole is akin to assuming that you, as a minister, must be a pedophile because of the recent disclosure by the Catholic church. If one is it must be the culture of the calling. There are bad cops. There are bad ministers. And teachers. And scout leaders. If an officer violates policy prosecute. But to assume that any of us can understand the dynamics of a moment and determine what should have happened is incredibly arrogant. Cops never know what someone’s intention is. They don’t dare assume it’s safe. In our community two officers allowed a suspect in a wheelchair to go get a pair of pants before they took him in on a warrant. He shot them to death in cold blood. Race wasn’t a factor, but the dead officers were white and the murderer was African American and a convicted felon. Yes there is work to be done. But that work includes not judging that which you cannot understand and not inciting more suspicion of those who will be protecting their communities tonight. All weekend. On Christmas. They are serving and now they have become targets. Is that what we really want? How about noting on Sunday, alongside the support for change, the names of all the officers murdered that week? The number of gun incidents nationwide to which they must respond? The number of lives saved by first responders?

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