Monday, January 30, 2023
It's Monday, January 30th, 2023.
I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Yet Another Horrifying Video Presented to Americans: Bodycam Footage Released of Tyre Nichols’ Arrest and Beating
Once again, Americans watched a video and we watched a video together. We watched a video that was incredibly horrifying, a video of five police officers in Memphis, Tennessee, basically beating another black man to death. And as this was taking place with Americans watching the video, or at least portions of the video, the donning of the consciousness came upon us. All that we are looking at something that has not in this case divided Americans, but has united Americans, United Americans in a sense of shared horror. Now, some of these events, city by city, year by year as they have unfolded headline by headline, they have not led to a unitary, a common response. But in this case, the consensus is incredibly clear and the consensus and the video evidence indicates that these five police officers basically went rogue.
And what you see on the video from multiple perspectives now put together by Memphis authorities is the fact that five police officers over an extended period of time apprehended this man and then began what can only be described as an effort to end his life. And three days after the events unfolded on January the 7th, Tyre Nichols died in a hospital in Memphis. He died on January the 10th. It was just last week the Memphis authorities released the video. And even in the days and hours prior to the release of the video, there was a very clear signal of concern from authorities who had viewed it, and that was that there could be in the population an incredible response to seeing what would unfold in the video evidence. Now so often in these cases, there is a division almost immediately over what is seen and what these events mean.
In this case, there has been no significant disagreement about what took place, nor is there any lack of consensus about the fact that this was a horrifying event. The five police officers have been fired by the Memphis police authorities and they are all now charged with criminal offenses including second degree murder. Furthermore, going into the weekend, Memphis announced that the special unit that these five police officers had represented known as Scorpion, it itself was being disbanded. Now, there's so much in the background here. For one thing, you're looking at the city of Memphis and you're looking at its struggles with crime, and you are looking at the fact that those struggles with crime have always been political and they always will be. You're also looking at a community that has a very large African American population and a very long history.
Relations between police and the various communities there in Memphis has been tense for a long time, but the video evidence in this case is just abundantly clear, and Memphis authorities clearly understood that and that's why they registered such alarm and issued such warnings just before the video evidence was released. Now, from a Christian worldview perspective, there's so much for us to consider here. For one thing, we need to begin with the necessity of law and order that is just a necessity for human civilization and for human flourishing. In a sinful world, certain structures of accountability and justice, even law enforcement have to be put into place if you're going to have a functioning society. A society that does not have those protective institutions and that does not respect those protective institutions is a society in big trouble. That by the way, is a theme of Western literature, and by that I mean the literature of Western civilization.
It is also the theme of the movie genre, so popular in the United States and elsewhere, but originating here known as the Western. Going back to the context of the developing American culture in what we know as, what was then, the Wild West. One of the themes of those movies is that there was chaos until there is the arrival of law. Oftentimes, someone who is deputized sent out a US marshal or a sheriff who finally comes to town. All that is just a way of underlining the fact that we need the police and we also need people to join the police force, and we need the police force to be fully professional and operating within our constitutional and legal bounds. And there can be no question that the vast majority of police officers and police forces do exactly that.
But we are looking at something that the nation has to talk about at this point. We are looking at video evidence of police officers in a special unit abusing this man, indeed virtually torturing him and injuring him to the point that he died in a hospital three days later. The police reason, by the way, for apprehending the man in the first place was what they described as reckless driving, whether or not that turns out to be confirmed or not, the fact is that we were looking at a man who was apprehended for something far away from a violent crime who nonetheless died a violent death. And in this case he died a violent death at the hands of those who were sworn to serve and to protect. Now, all of this plays into bigger political, cultural and social, even moral dynamics, including the attempt by many on the left to... Well, this was the term especially popular about two years ago, defund the police.
There are those especially on the left who see the police, even the institution of modern policing as itself repressive and as contradictory to human flourishing. Of course, most Americans do not see reality that way and frankly can't see reality that way. And furthermore, even as you see, for instance, media interviews with people in the neighborhoods where many are making those arguments, they're not asking for less policing, they're actually asking for more. But a part of what makes Western society Western, and at least described as democratic constitutional in our constitutional republic, our form of government, you do have respect for police and you do have incredible responsibility invested in police in this country, but you also recognize that the United States is not and certainly does not want to be a so-called police state. We don't want anarchy without police; and as a matter of fact, we want modern professional police. And furthermore, we do not want a police state.
On the other hand, that means that the police basically function as what can be described as judge, jury and executioner. A police state in which there is no zone of privacy and in which human freedom is constrained by the prior authority of a repressive law enforcement agency. But you know those old Westerns were really onto something if you doubt the necessity of a police force, just try doing without it. And furthermore, the vast majority of people who joined the police force are not only noble but sacrificially so. And the same thing is true by the way, and this tells us something about a fallen world, just how deceptive sin can be and how necessary structures and absolutely necessary protections can turn out not to protect. Just consider the fact that if you look at the modern firefighting force, you are looking in most cities at the fact that at least some people drawn to the profession of firefighting have an inordinate interest in fire.
Now, you wouldn't generalize that as a widespread problem. You wouldn't assume that cynically of your firemen and fire personnel at the local station, but nonetheless, that's just documented, and frankly in a fallen world that's understandable. The police, likewise, the military, likewise, and I simply have to say this affects every single profession; doctors and lawyers, and yes, in a fallen world, it affects the ministry too. Respect for law enforcement means that there can be absolutely no toleration of rogue police officers and of units seemingly out of control as this unit. You look at a city like Memphis and that metropolitan area, you understand its challenges with crime including violent crime. You look at neighborhoods where crime is very intensive and you can understand why special police units like the one just disbanded known as Scorpion would be seen to be necessary.
By the way, if you look at one of the major changes to American policing, and this gets right down to local law enforcement in much of the country. Over the course of the last say, 20 to 30 years, interestingly, one of the big changes would be the increase of the police force into something at least in specialized units that would be described fairly as paramilitary. This was actually accelerated in the first decade of this century by the fact that with the challenge of 9/11 and many other things, you actually had actual military material that was being shared with local law enforcement. You had special units, most famously those known as SWAT units, but you also had other special units and they began to be far more armed and far more paramilitary than had been the case in the past.
Now, as you're looking at the situation in Memphis, again, here is the big moral reality. We're looking at something that was unquestionably wrong, horrifyingly wrong, and we should be thankful that at this moment this has not caused a great rift and divide among the American people. As a matter of fact, groups as disparate as those on the left and the fraternal order of police, not exactly on the left, they have agreed with the fact that this was what it appears to be. Now, these five men given our system of justice, deserve a fair trial, but there are a couple of issues that have intervened that also demand our attention. One of them is the fact that as you are looking at the video, the video evidence that which was released at the end of last week and has made such a difference in the moral impression.
Here's where we need to understand two big issues that the Christian worldview just underlines as interesting and important. One of them is the impossibility of not making a moral judgment when your eyes are able to see certain events unfold.
Now, one of the things we need to keep in mind is that there is a limited perspective here, but in the case of this video evidence, the limitation is not as severe as you might think. There were several different cameras involved, not only those worn as body cameras by the police, and not only those in police vehicles, but also one that was independent of the police on a local utility pole. So we're looking at multiple cameras from multiple angles, and to be sure at this point it appears, they were all telling the same awful story. In the annals of American law, the story has been told of a rather desperate defense attorney who clearly losing the case, asked the jury, "Who are you going to believe? Me or your lying eyes?"
Well, the whole point of that argument being ludicrous is this, human beings do trust our eyes. Now, in a fallen world, our eyes do not deserve our unqualified trust. But on the other hand, when you have many different people looking at the video evidence together at the same time, you're looking at the same evidence, coming to the same conclusion, and when you have multiple angles and multiple perspectives in that video evidence, not just one camera that might be edited, but you're looking at an overwhelming accumulation of video evidence.
The fact is it is very, very difficult to say the very least for people not to trust their eyes. In the case of Tyre Nichols, by the way, it is not only the eyes, it is also horrifying to understand what comes in to our ears.
Public Opinion, Moral Consensus, and Justice: Theological Considerations of the Memphis Crisis
But from a Christian worldview perspective, we understand there's another huge question here, and this one goes back long before the advent of modern video cameras, but it certainly is more undeniable and unavoidable in the age where virtually everyone can be a movie producer.
Most Americans are carrying rather awesome filmmaking capacity just on our smartphones. But from a theological perspective, just consider this question, how is it that you have people who know they are wearing body cameras that are recording their actions and their words, how when they know there are other cameras in action, also with video evidence that will be available, when they have reason to know there are other cameras in the vicinity that are going to be filming all of this, when they come to understand that their every action and their every word is going to be recorded for the world to see, how in the world at the time did they think they could get away with this? Now, the world looking at this would simply say, "Here's a new thing. This is amazing." All this new video technology, we have all this evidence, the response to it, the understanding of what was going through the police officer's minds, this is unprecedented, except it's not exactly unprecedented to Christians and to those who know the Bible.
One of the most amazing facts of humanity, and this is just foundational to the biblical worldview, is the fact that our first parents, Adam and Eve, knowing that the creator God was observing them at all times, nonetheless sinned against him eating from the tree that was forbidden them and then trying to hide themselves from the Creator. Now we know how futile that was. As a matter of fact, it can only be theologically described as a form of moral and spiritual insanity, but nonetheless, that happened. And remember that the Christian doctrine of salvation based in scripture is not that Adam and Eve sinned and then that got blamed on us, but that in Adam, our federal head, we all sinned. So the biblical understanding is not that we can blame Adam, but rather wake up and look in the mirror, "You are Adam." That's true for every single one of us. But it also just underlines something that is headline news in this story.
Here were people who knew. They had no possibility of not knowing that this video would become public, this video that condemns them so utterly and so quickly, so comprehensively that there really isn't a divide in public opinion. They had to know that all of this would become public, and yet they did what they did. Now again, theologically, this is not just about those police officers, it is about sinful humanity. But this in the venality of these police officers becomes a glaring demonstration of the fact that human beings knowing and frankly, given their spiritual construction, incapable of not knowing that we are observed, nonetheless will misbehave, nonetheless will break the law, nonetheless will do things which we have every reason to expect will come to light, especially I just add, when you know are wearing a body camera and so are your colleagues. How in the world could this happen?
But here's where Christians also need to understand another facet of this story, and that is that it is an all likelihood, far less likely that any one of these police officers would've done any similar thing alone. Now, this just gets back to something that we understand about human behavior. When you put people together, and in this case you're looking at this special police unit, when you put them together at times, what you see is that this brings out corporate misbehavior rather than corporate good behavior. Now, you would think it would be otherwise, but then again, you have played on a playground and you probably do know how that works. So here's so sad about all this, and it's just a tragic part of the sinful condition of humanity. You would think that the more of us you get together, the less likelihood there would be that we would sin, certainly commit a violent crime, and certainly committed together. But it turns out it doesn't always work that way.
Looking at the video, one of the most insistent questions that comes to us is this; why did not one of the five cry out and say, "Here is an unarmed man. What are we doing? We are killing him. That is abusing him. He is being attacked in this case, and he is apprehended. He is fully under arrest."? That did not happen. And yes, it simply begs the question why? Now, just wrapping this up in this consideration for today, we'll have to return to this. And yes, we always have to remind ourselves there is almost assuredly more to learn. There's not less to learn here that video evidence is extremely unlikely to go away, but there is perhaps more to be learned, we simply have to acknowledge that. Police authorities, by the way, cited in major media, reports in the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times. They acknowledged questions such as this.
When you have the public coming to a judgment so quickly, and in this case, the video was released just before the weekend. And let's face it, most Americans have a pretty good idea of the moral judgment they have made. This really does represent a challenge for our system of justice.
Mourn with Those with Mourn: Praying for the Mourning and for Gospel Ministry in Memphis
In the modern information age, it becomes more and more difficult to operate upon the basic principle that is bedrock to the American, the Western jury tradition. And that is that an individual is innocent until proven guilty, and that proven guilty is not in the court of public opinion.
First of all, it must be in the court of law following the rules of a court of law. Tyre Nichols deserve that, although at this point it's not even really clear with what he would've been arrested, at least originally. But these police officers also according to the rule of law, deserve a fair trial. And that means that the state has the responsibility to prove that they committed the crimes and a jury of their peers, of fellow citizens, must find them guilty of having done so.
By the way, there are multiple charges now against all the police officers, and given another facet of life today, they are likely also to face very serious federal charges. But nonetheless, the rule of law must prevail. Tyre Nichols deserved the rule of law, but the whole point of the American constitutional and legal order based upon Christian presuppositions in Western civilization is that every citizen actually deserves the same treatment in a court of law, and in any event, it is the government that has to prove the charge.
Now, clearly, here's what we know. The government has a lot of evidence in seeking to prove that charge, but there has been no trial yet. What's going on right now is a trial in public opinion. Unprecedented really in terms of the speed with which the public is now put in the responsibility of making a moral decision. As I say, I'm thankful for the fact that there has been an enormous moral consensus in making that moral judgment.
Now, what we'll follow is going to be a very energetic conversation and debate in this country over how the police should operate, how they should be organized, how they should be evaluated. But here's where we need to know. In a fallen world, there can be no sane responsible conversation about whether or not we need the police and policing. We also need to be thankful for the thousands upon thousands of honorable members of police forces who are putting their lives on the line to defend the rule of law and to defend communities.
There will be a lot to debate in coming days, but it's also important from a Christian understanding to say that we need to prevent this issue simply becoming a matter of law and justice and public debate and political reform and police affirmation. No, it needs to be right now much more than that. It needs to be Christian concern for a family and a community deeply, deeply in grief. It is a Christian responsibility to demand justice and to uphold righteousness and to build the kind of civilization and civilizational structures that make that possible.
But it is also a Christian responsibility, a biblical responsibility to mourn with, as the Book of Common Prayer says, them that mourn. I want to be honest and say that this is a very hard issue to think about, and it's a very hard issue on the briefing to talk about. We're talking about life and death; we're talking about crime and punishment; we are talking about very horrible developments in a fallen world.
And I want to be honest with you, it doesn't feel right to shift to any other issue. Even though there are many other issues that really do demand our attention. We'll have to look to those issues in days to come.
At this point, it seems the right way to end the briefing today is to say, pray for the Nichols family, pray for the city and the community of Memphis, pray for Christian churches there in Memphis who have the opportunity to mourn directly with them that mourn, and also to reach out in gospel ministry, and pray for our nation.
We got big issues to confront, and this video just reminds us in a way that we simply cannot deny those issues demand to be faced.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbs.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.