John and the Long Arm of the Law

Soldiers also asked John, “And we, what should we do?”
He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” 
(Luke 3:14)

This third group of people who come to John the Baptist asking, what then should we do? gets an answer that I want to reflect on from two angles.

The first has to do with law enforcement. The second (which I’ll save for tomorrow) has to do with the military.

I imagine Roman soldiers functioning basically as human extensions of the authority of the Roman emperor, into the farthest corners of Roman-occupied territory. The long arm of the law, if you will.

I imagine they had a fair amount of power, and people kind of had to do what they said. I imagine they carried swords―and that if they were here in the US today, they would carry guns.

It’s not hard to imagine that there probably wasn’t great accountability for those soldiers who decided to abuse their power against civilians. There probably weren’t a lot of checks and balances in place to make sure they didn’t do things like extort money from people by threats or false accusation. If these were the first things that came to mind for John when the soldiers asked, what then should we do, they must have been common practices.

Fortunately for us, modern-day law enforcement officers never abuse their power in these sorts of ways, so we can’t really relate.

Just kidding.

When I think about Roman soldiers making threats and false accusations against people, I think about police officers who frame black and brown people for things like drug possession and send them to jail (often extorting money via bail in the process). A quick Google search for an example brought up this particularly egregious and obvious case―for which there was some accountability, but only slightly subtler things like this happen all the time, often with no accountability.

I think about police officers who make excuses for their own (or their colleagues’) unwarranted, excessive, and often racially-based violence, by defaming the character of the person against whom the violence was inflicted, or by falsely claiming that the person had a weapon, or that there was a good reason to assume they had a weapon. John says, do not make false accusations.

I think about law enforcement officers who betray the people they are meant to serve, by working with, rather than against, organized crime groups. This recent podcast from This American Life tells a horrifying and sickening story about a Central American man who was turned away from the US border upon trying to claim asylum. Along with fellow turned-away asylum seekers, the man was taken to the Mexican immigration office, after which a Mexican immigration officer picked everyone up and drove them all to a bus stop―and then sat in his car and watched while the asylum seekers were picked up not by a bus but by cartel members in a van who drove them to an unknown location and held them for ransom. Later on, when the man’s sister sent money to the kidnappers for his release, she was asked to wire this money to the account number of the Mexican immigration officer. John says, do not extort money from anyone by threats.

Of course, things are complicated, and cartels are terrifying. I wouldn’t want to blame the Mexican immigration officer too easily, or alone. Let’s not forget the complicity of the US immigration agents at the border who, under instructions from Trump’s administration, by default turn away people who are legitimately fleeing for their lives. And, as the This American Life podcast mentions, by releasing people at the border in large groups at a predictable time of day, US agents make these people unnecessarily vulnerable and obvious targets for exploitation.

History and present-day experience are full of people doing normally-unconscionable things, simply because they are told to by their superiors. Stanley Milgram did a famous social psychology experiment in the 1960s with disturbing results to this effect. He had an authority figure (a scientific researcher) instruct participants to administer larger and larger shocks to a person in an adjacent room and found that about two-thirds of participants obeyed the authority figure and administered shocks large enough that (had they been real) they would have likely killed the person in the other room.

Milgram’s intent was to investigate how the Holocaust could have happened, with so many otherwise ordinary citizens participating in it in various ways; his conclusion was that most people will do very bad things if someone else who they believe has legitimate authority is telling them to do it, and if they believe that that person will take responsibility for the consequences.

John the Baptist says, don’t do these things. In the situation you’re in, with the power that you have―and sometimes in spite of all of the other powers you might be under―follow your conscience. Yes, it will be hard. Yes, it might cost you your job (as it did for one of the immigration agents interviewed by This American Life). Do the right thing anyway.

John says, do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation. For all of us―and especially for people who, like the Roman soldiers of John’s day, find themselves in situations where harming others is easy and peers and supervisors either turn a blind eye or push them toward doing harm―do good and not evil to the people you are meant to serve and protect.

Do good and not evil, even if you can do evil and get away with it, with someone else taking responsibility for your actions. Even if you can do evil and it doesn’t really feel like you’re causing someone harm, because that harm is indirect, or happens far away from you. Even if everyone else in the department or agency is doing evil. Even if your supervisor specifically tells you to do evil.

I don’t intend this as an anti-law-enforcement post. There are so many law enforcement officers who serve their communities well, and sacrificially, often facing high risks and bearing high costs in their own wellbeing. John isn’t against the soldiers. He doesn’t call them a brood of vipers, or say away from me, you evildoers (Matthew 7:23), or anything like that. He says, bear good fruit―and for you in particular, given your position in society, that means protect people and don’t exploit them.

Hopefully, for those in law enforcement or similar kinds of positions who are already doing these things, John’s words are comforting: you’re doing the right thing. Keep at it. Be encouraged and strengthened in it. I want everyone to do what you’re doing. It is possible.

May we be thankful for the many people in law enforcement who serve their communities well, while also following John’s lead in calling unapologetically for an end to all kinds of exploitative practices, racism, dishonesty, violence, and other evils. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *