by Stephen Ferguson  |  12 July 2020  |

Unless you have been living in a hermitage, you will be aware of the fateful murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, over an alleged counterfeit $20 bill. You will also be aware of the protests that followed, aimed at enacting genuine police reform.

As some readers may equally be aware, a key issue underpinning police reform is the question of qualified immunity. This is a legal doctrine, which as the New York Times recently explained:

In the vast majority of cases of police brutality, officers are never criminally prosecuted. For families of victims seeking some sort of relief through the justice system, qualified immunity presents another obstacle to obtaining financial or other damages. Even in the rare cases where the officers are charged, as in Mr. Floyd’s death, the police can still claim qualified immunity if relatives or victims sue them.[1]

Will Chauvin be acquitted and protected from civil suit? “Qualified immunity lacks absoluteness. For example, no protection will apply if an officer did not act in good faith or was objectively unreasonable.[2]

Qualified immunity is a modification of sovereign immunity, an ancient and more absolute protection founded upon the idea of rex non potest peccare (“the king can do no wrong”). Moreover, just as the king was immune, the concept extended to the sovereign’s representatives, that is, his family and court officials.

Are we Christ’s Cops in need of immunity?

The concept has clear spiritual connotations. In Christ we act as His heirs (1 John 3:2). We are therefore Jesus’ own royal family, ambassadors, soldiers and sheriffs (2 Cor. 5:20; Eph. 6:12). If you are on the side of Black Lives Matter and police reform—and I would like to think I am—it may be a disturbing thought that we are Christ’s Cops!

This then raises an important question: what if we make terrible officers? If I can be so dramatic, what if we turn out to be the spiritual equivalents of Derek Chauvin? After all, Jesus said:

“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28).

I don’t ask that question flippantly or in any way disrespecting what happened to Mr Floyd. Quite the contrary, Floyd’s murder has illustrated his death was about more than the destruction of one man’s body but about the soul of an entire nation.

Do we then need the spiritual equivalent of immunity? Is what we commonly call “grace” a bad thing, if it means we can get away with the spiritual equivalent of assault or even murder?

It probably isn’t a thought we like to have. We imagine ourselves John the Beloved seated at the foot of the cross, maybe even Peter denying our Lord, but never as the Roman soldier driving in the nails. However, every one of us represents King Jesus, with the power to destroy another person’s life, if not our own, on an emotional or spiritual level.

What if spiritual immunity isn’t qualified?

Calvinists tend to see spiritual culpability and immunity in absolute terms: “once saved, always saved”. However, that would mean accepting any spiritual Derek Chauvin as essentially untouchable. It seems such a bad idea there isn’t much more to say about it.

The other extreme is to reject, or severely curtail, the idea of spiritual immunity at all. Such a view encompasses legalism and perfectionism. As Christ’s Cop, you are on your own. Maybe the precinct will give you some extra training, but good luck!

Aspects of Pharisaic-Judaism and Roman Catholicism seem to extol this view. Modern Last Generation Theology (LGT), an ultra-conservative sub-faction of Adventism, also seems to embrace it, with popular LGT-proponent Larry Kirkpatrick explaining:

“…the condition of eternal life in every age has always been what it first was in Eden—perfect obedience to the law of God.”[3]

These ideas are so at odds with everything we know about human beings, it only takes a simple question to rebut such ideas: “Tell me, when did you reach sinless perfection?”[4] We should all strive to be better. However, just as we know police officers are not robots but flawed human beings, so no officer for Jesus is going to be perfect this side of the eschaton (Rom. 3:23).

Can we understand spiritual immunity in more nuanced terms?

I think the idea of qualified immunity is necessary on both a worldly and spiritual level. Not unlimited or absolute, and perhaps in need of refinement or reform, but fundamentally essential.

I think the Catholic idea of mortal sin comes close to this, based on 1 John 5:15-17. As Catholic theologian Richard McBrien explains:

“But only a fundamental reversal of that choice is sufficient to cancel out the original decision to understand oneself in relation to God. In other words, no single act by itself is sufficient to merit eternal punishment in hell unless that act is of sufficient depth and magnitude to constitute a fundamental repeal of the conversion experience. Only a mortal sin.”[5]

Don’t get me wrong; I am a Protestant – not a Roman Catholic.[6] Nonetheless, the idea of mortal sin, without Catholic trappings, seems interesting.[7] Catholicism traditionally defined mortal sin via a threefold test: the subject matter must be grave; it must be committed with full knowledge; and it must be deliberate. However, McBrien further explains it isn’t just about an act per se but:

“Mortal sin involves a fundamental rejection of God and the reorientation of one’s whole life away from all that is good and just. It is not something one commits frequently. Certainly it will be rare, even non-existent, in the life of a sincere and active member of the Church.”[8]

McBrien seems to take a more biblical and balanced view than the traditional Catholic idea of missing mass and masturbation being the qualifications for everlasting damnation.

From a more Protestant viewpoint, we would probably draw upon the idea of the unpardonable sin instead, being the rejection of the Holy Spirit (Mark 3:28-29). Unlike John Calvin, Martin Luther recognised baptised Christians could “fall away unto unbelief”.[9]

Within Adventism, the idea of needing to reject Christ to lose eternal life draws interesting parallels to so-called Universal Legal Justification (ULJ) theory. Extolled as part of Jones and Waggoner’s original 1888 message, ULJ emphasises:

“The judgment will reveal the fact that full salvation was given to every man and that the lost have deliberately thrown away their birthright possession.”[10]

Great Adventist theologian Desmond Ford likewise rejected Calvinism’s once saved, always saved premise.[11] However, he explained that our salvation is:

“retained as long as he or she believes, despite personal mistakes and failures. Note it well, justification does not cover only our past but all our days.”[12]

These more nuanced views seem to emphasise an assurance of salvation coupled with free choice. There is spiritual immunity, which is to say grace, but it is qualified. Importantly, once we accept Jesus, we have to deliberately opt-out, rather than opt-in, to eternal life.

Are we spiritual Rolfes or spiritual Chauvins?

To return this analogy to police reform: I think most of us understand officers have a difficult job. I think we understand that even when they make mistakes, most police deserve some degree of immunity. Not just forgiveness of past wrongs but assurance about their future. They cannot otherwise confidently make split-second life-and-death decisions.

Sometimes those decisions are indeed incredibly stupid, even if the officer did not have premeditated ill-intent. For example, when Atlanta police officer Garrett Rolfe shot Rayshard Brooks in the back outside a Wendy’s restaurant, Rolfe clearly did the wrong thing, even if Brooks did have one of the officer’s tasers and had fired (but missed) moments before. I predict Rolfe will be acquitted of any serious criminal charges and qualified immunity will stand, although he rightly lost his job. You can debate me on this, precisely because this incident is a little less clear.

On the other hand, Chauvin is a completely different matter. Even Fox won’t defend this guy. This officer smugly, knowingly, intently, kneeled on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, as the crowd begged for Floyd’s life. This officer fundamentally rejected what being a police officer is meant to be about, and reorientated his life away from all that his badge stood for.

What does that say about you? On a spiritual level, I suspect all of us have done some incredibly dumb, hurtful things, both to ourselves and to others. On that basis I suspect many of us have been a spiritual Rolfe, but a spiritual Chauvin?

But how do I know I won’t become a spiritual Derek Chauvin?

“Work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12). It isn’t a text we normally like to cite, but in the spiritual application of Floyd’s murder, we see it means to take your responsibilities as Christ’s representative on earth seriously. Nonetheless, as long as you have good intent, Jesus has your back.

As comedian David Chappelle observes, it was the nonchalant way Chauvin had his hands in his pockets that is the most disturbing part of this incident. As Floyd’s niece rightly said about Chauvin, “He begged and pleaded many times just for you to get up, but you just pushed harder”. Chauvin seemed to have no doubts about what he was doing, which was precisely the problem.

In a discussion about our salvation, doubt is not something we usually see in a good light. But fundamentally good people usually have doubts, which is why they tend to be more tolerant and less judgmental of others (Matt. 7:1-3; cf. Luke 11:42; 18:9-14). So, if you are worried you might become a spiritual Derek Chauvin, that is a good thing, and probably means you have nothing to worry about.

[1] I will just add for any non-US readers that this isn’t just a US thing. Many countries are having a similar debate, concerning police and other government officials with similar rights and protections. There have been Black Lives Matters protests in Australia focussing on Aboriginal deaths in custody, which remains a flashpoint here too.

[2] See Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800 (1982).

[3] Larry Kirkpatrick, Cleanse and Close: Last Generation Theology in 14 Points (Philippians Two Five, 2019), chapter 6, pp.62, 143.

[4] With SDA pioneer Ellen White herself quite rightly saying on that subject: “I do not say that I am perfect, but I am trying to be perfect. I do not expect others to be perfect; and if I could not associate with my brothers and sisters who are not perfect, I do not know what I should do… No one is perfect” – Ellen White, PUR, April 29, 1915, par.7-8.

[5] Richard McBrien, Catholicism (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981), pp.955-956.

[6] To avoid doubt, I believe salvation (“getting into heaven”) is based only on justification (being declared righteous by grace through faith alone), and not sanctification (the latter only being the fruit and not the cause of salvation).

[7] The key problem with Catholic ideas about mortal sin, as I see it, is not that they see only this type of sin as endangering a person to hell. In my view, the major problem is that although Catholics suggest an absence of a mortal sin means we will not be damned to hell, they say this doesn’t automatically afford us a right to heaven either. Catholics therefore still need priests, sacramental rites, good works (as a condition-precedent and not merely condition-subsequent) and purgatory in order to get to heaven.

[8] See n5, p.742.

[9] Martin Luther, Commentary on 2 Peter 2:22.

[10] Waggoner on Romans, 101, quoted by Mark Duncan, Legal Justification: Is It a Valid Concept?, citing Waggoner in Glad Tidings, 13, 14.

[11] Desmond Ford, In the Heart of Daniel: An Exposition of Daniel 9:24-27 (New York: iUniverse Inc.), p.54.

[12] Desmond Ford, Good News for Adventists, p.15.

Stephen Ferguson is a lawyer from Perth, Western Australia, with expertise in planning, environment, immigration and administrative-government law. He is married to Amy and has two children, William and Eloise. Stephen is a member of the Livingston Adventist Church. 

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