At what point does an administration or regime become culpable for crimes committed within its sphere?
That's the critical question raised by the assassination of two New York police officers in an anti-police atmosphere. Some blame leaders like Mayor Bill De Blasio, President Barack Obama, and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder for setting the tone in the wake of police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.
"Did the harsh anti-police rhetoric from protestors & officials alike create climate where a scumbag terrorist felt justified to attack cops?" tweeted Geraldo Rivera.
"We've had four months of propaganda, starting with the president, that everybody should hate the police," said former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. "I don't care how you want to describe it – that's what those protests are all about."
Former New York governor George Pataki said the "barbaric" killing of the police officers was because of "divisive anti-cop rhetoric" foisted by De Blasio and Holder.
The question of the culpability of politicians, their rhetoric and regimes, is not new. More than 40 years ago as a newspaper reporter in Birmingham, Alabama, many of us were asking the same question. The situation was vastly different yet remarkably similar.
Alabama Governor George Wallace was building a career on racism. "Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!" he cried in his 1963 inaugural speech. When he wasn't rousing racist fervor around the state, Wallace was taking his literal stand in the "schoolhouse door" at the University of Alabama, and symbolically elsewhere.
Then came that shocking, abominable, indescribably horrible Sunday morning, September 15, 1963, when racist thugs set off a bomb at Birmingham's Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, killing four children.
Were Wallace and state policy culpable?
Some white people (I know this by direct experience) threatened by the Ku Klux Klan considered asking for police protection but hesitated because they couldn't be sure the white police force under Commissioner Bull Connor would stand with or against them. Were Connor and his police officers culpable for the horrors perpetrated by rogues?
To his great credit, George Wallace asked forgiveness from blacks and others. As a newspaper editorial writer I had opposed Wallace's policies. But one day years later as a pastor I was asked to go to the Governor's hospital room where he writhed in pain from an assassination attempt, and pray with him. I found there a humble man who really meant it when he asked forgiveness (which put me in the squeamish position of having to forgive him, even harder for black leaders I knew).
Still we must ask: At what point does a government and its leaders become culpable when people seem to act on their rhetoric? There is an even larger question, especially relevant now: When does a regime lose its legitimacy, and become subject to removal?
The riddles can be solved only from a transcendent perspective, which Winston Churchill considered a providential view of history, its events, institutions, and leaders.
Romans 13:1-5 lifts us up to that highest of levels. There, under the Holy Spirit's revelation, Paul writes about the legitimacy of government. The Apostle gives four criteria under which an administration or regime is not merely a power-holder (anyone strong and brutal enough can do that) but operates under God-given authority:
• Those ruling under God's authority are to encourage good, not evil.
• Legitimate (by God's standards) government leaders are responsible for enforcing just law.
• True government must execute justice fairly and humanely.
• Governments are to protect the innocent
By contrast, then, a governing administration or regime is culpable for crimes committed in its sphere of authority when:
• It encourages evil rather than good
• When it does not enforce the law in a just and unbiased manner
• When it fails to execute true justice on perpetrators of evil and its crimes
• When it does not take responsibility for protecting the innocent
There is a huge factor that cannot be ignored: the government itself has no authority if it is not under God's transcendent authority. Without God, politicians can make any of the criteria above say what they interpret it to mean.
In North Korea "evil" is regarded as anything not conforming to the Cult of Kim. In other officially atheistic states, the law is tilted against religious believers, and in rigidly Islamic states against non-Muslims. In the slavery era American South, black slaves like Dred Scott were seen as chattel, and therefore not having equality under the law. In abortion-cultures, regimes see no compelling need to protect the innocent unborn.
Thus Paul is not saying that all regimes govern with the authority of God, but that all regimes that govern properly are under God's authority. Those that are not are subject to resistance. The Apostles refused when the Sanhedrin prohibited them from preaching Christ in the Temple. Paul preached in cities whose leaders instructed him to cease and desist, and he paid the price for it. Ages earlier, Amos refused the demand of the court priest not to prophesy at the king's palace
But how do we know what is truly God's authority, and what is not? While I disagree with certain outcomes, Catholic theologians are right in their understanding that theology and doctrine arise in the context of the koinonia, or community of faith around Christ. This is the power of consensus. Corrections have always come to nations suffering under errant regimes when there is a return to a consensus around overarching principles, like the Ten Commandments, and Sermon on the Mount. Churchill, for example, said that Christ's Sermon on the Mount constitutes the basis for all ethics.
That is the biblical scheme. To the extent that power-holders in America –
or anywhere – ignore it, twist it, or defy it, they share culpability for their community's crimes.