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June 07, 2012
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Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D. Passion for the Job
with Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D.

The moral imperative of survival

We may sense a global sadness about the loss of one’s potential for good, but being thankful that the other guy is dead and you’re still alive is not morally repugnant

Some voice told me not to step across the threshold. At least I had an escape route as the drunken man waved his brand new — and very large — hunting knife in a challenge to me. Killing a man in his own home on his birthday would make for bad press, but I kept pressure on the trigger and watched the imaginary line I had drawn on the floor which would mark the man’s last breath.

I was at peace with my decision even before fate intervened and the man lived. I could be in church the next morning with a clear conscience either way.

Most religions, certainly true of mine, are purposed to have men live peaceably and yet they have a place of honor for warriors. In the natural order of things in a fallen world protectors are divinely ordained to exist as an agent of good. They are not commissioned to heal and spread glee. They are not armed with poetry and pillows. God knows we kill and He is OK with it. While this article deals with ethics from a Christian perspective, with rare exceptions most philosophies, moral systems, and theologies agree on this concept.

Here is why, in my view, Biblical morality allows taking the life of another:

1.) The law of Moses (the Ten Commandments) forbids murder. This is not a prohibition against the killing of war, nor of self-defense, nor of administration of justice. Historical context and word study make this clear to most theologians.

2.) The biblical mandate for forgiveness and turning the other cheek is for personal morality. When we act on behalf of others, we have no moral authority to forgive on their behalf, to allow evil for the sake of tolerance, or to turn the cheek of anyone but ourselves. My badge represents all citizens. My sword and my body are in their service. To allow harm to me is to allow harm to them. To do them the most honor and highest service I must survive to continue the work. When I defend myself I defend thousands.

3.) Jesus was always kind to soldiers, even those who carried out his execution. The Apostle Paul, primary theologian for the young Christian religion is most likely author of the New Testament book of Romans chapter 13:1, states:

“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.”

Certainly there are authorities who abuse their powers, just as there are parents - ordained by God to be caregivers of their children - who abuse their role. But the point is that when a person is acting in this God-ordained role appropriately, he or she is doing a noble duty in line with a legitimate earthly system of preserving order.

4.) Biblical accounts reveal the scars of battle on the minds of men. King David was called a man after God’s own heart, yet his legacy was soldiering. He was a righteous warrior with some human failings. David mourned only for the deaths he caused by his own scheming to cover up a scandal, and for his rebellious son. We are not told if he grieved for the tens of thousands who died at his hand in battle. 

The Apostle Paul personally executed believers until he, too, became one. Noah closed the door of the Ark against his prior tormentors left to drown when the floods came and they decided Noah wasn’t crazy after all.

Conclusion
My point is that even though death was a common theme in scripture there is no specific biblical prescription for handling death that comes from our own hands in terms of our emotional, mental, and spiritual state.

There may be remorse, anger, guilt, glee, or a vacant place where feelings are expected to be. All of those reactions are normal and morally acceptable. They will be refined and worked out over time.

Reactions to killing someone don’t have to be fully formed and resolved before the smoke of the gun clears, before the administrative leave is over, or before the counselor or chaplain visits are done. We may sense a global sadness about the loss of one’s potential for good, but being thankful that the other guy is dead and you’re still alive is not morally repugnant.

Because the killing of one human by another is unthinkable to most citizens — and many officers — a police officer who kills has thrust upon them the collective anxieties of the whole social order. No way of feeling or thinking about the killing is going to please everyone.

You feel what you feel. You did what you had to do. Take a deep breath and feel your pulse. If you survived, then you did the right thing.


About the author

Joel Shults currently serves as Chief of Police for Adams State College in Alamosa, Co. Over his 30 year career in uniformed law enforcement and in criminal justice education Joel has served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor, and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and bachelors in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the US Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over fifty police agencies across the country. He currently serves on a number of advisory and advocacy boards including the Colorado POST curriculum committee as a subject matter expert.

His latest book The Badge and the Brain is available at www.joelshults.com

Follow Joel on Twitter @ChiefShults.

Contact Joel Shults





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