Saint Michael and All angles can be an uncomfortable feast. For my family and me, maybe more so this year than in the past. In 2018, the Episcopal parish where I serve as rector opened a dedicated chapel to serve Law Enforcement and First Responders in our community. Saint Michael is the patron saint of Law Enforcement officers, so we consecrated the dedicated chapel with Saint Michael’s patronage.
Since its consecration, the chapel has served as a place of respite and refreshment for officers, firefighters, and emergency medical technicians from twenty-one different agencies at local, county, statewide, and federal levels. It has remained open and available 24/7 through the entirety of the pandemic and grown to be one of the principal outreach ministries of our parish.
Yet, following the murder of George Floyd, and the protests that followed, ministry with law enforcement has become far more complicated. Necessary, but difficult conversations too long neglected have become a fixation of many communities, especially communities of faith.
What is the role of police in society?
What are the right and justified means to use of force from law enforcement?
How do we hold law enforcement officers accountable in situations of misconduct?
How do we ensure the safety of law enforcement officers who are doing a very difficult job most of us know very little about on a day-to-day basis?
How do we reckon with past racism, over-policing, and harm in marginalized communities, and heal past trauma?
Like most Episcopal priests, I regularly listen to and counsel people of all backgrounds who possess diverse opinions and experiences in social conversations about contemporary issues. We have an engaged congregation and many are wrestling with how policing, peacemaking, and the use of force interact with their faith. This has also affected how people in our parish and the wider community feel about the St. Michael Chapel on our campus.
In addition to being a parish priest, I am also a police chaplain. I spend hours each week with officers in our community wrestling with these same issues from inside the “thin blue line”. Most people are surprised to learn that officers and commanders at every level are asking the same questions about their profession as the general population. Most know there is a structural problem in policing. Corrupt and abusive officers erode public trust and place their lives at increased danger by sowing seeds of distrust.
Yet they follow those conversations with ones too often overlooked. Conversations that include the questions, how do we deescalate situations that make officers react with force, most often in fractions of a second? How do we rehumanize police as men and women with families, parents, and loved ones they wish to see at the end of their shift? How do we build trust so that officers can do their job and suspects can be held accountable and everyone goes home at the end of the night unharmed?
Saint Michael’s feast day is a perfect opportunity to give these questions and ones like them serious consideration. In the book of Revelation, we get the most complete description of Saint Michael in all of holy scripture. It is not one for the faint of heart though, because our description comes in the context of violent force. Saint Michael and the other angels are fighting a “dragon” who is called “Satan” and “the deceiver of the world”. In this context, Christians of all tribes and cultures have been trained to see a clear good (angels) fighting against clear evil (the devil).
What are we to do when we are unsure of who is on whose side? What are we do when people with state-sanctioned authority to serve and protect with violent force are faced with unpredictable and often violent forces of evil in our world? Where their lives are predicated on instinct forged in training because there is no time to make intentional or conscious decisions? What happens when that story turns out to be false on further investigation, and innocent people are victimized? What is the just consequence to force that harms or kills the innocent?
That brings us to grace. How much grace should we have for mistakes or misconduct? Are we willing to invest in the copious amounts of training and trauma-informed therapies for people who spend years battling evil? What happens in a society where the people striving against evil are unarmed (like Saint Michael)? What are the alternatives and how much should we invest in developing those methods?
My son and I will take some time to talk about these things today. At 6, I want him to know a few key things:
- Police are like parents and teachers, follow their directions for your safety and theirs. If something is not right, we will fix it later.
- Most of policing is community relationship building, I know many officers who have retired without ever unholstering their weapons on duty. When officers use force, it should always be for the protection of the innocent, and it should be incredibly rare.
- There are communities that are fearful of law enforcement. Their concerns are real. Listen to them, and advocate for their safety.
- Pray for police, pray for victims of crime, pray for those who are perpetrating evil, work for peace and equality. Get to know both officers and victims.
I hope more of us will have these conversations in our families. This Saint Michael day may be the right opportunity to impart your values to your children and loved ones and begin a conversation that can change lives and our society at large. It may even save a life.