Serve and Protect

Selected Essays on Just Policing

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Tobias Winright
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Wipf & Stock
    , November
     198 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


As Tobias Winright, the author of Serve and Protect: Selected Essays on Just Policing, notes, there is an odd lacuna in the literature of theological ethics. There have been many books written about the ethics of war and peace, abortion, euthanasia, the criminal justice system, economic inequalities, and so forth, but very little written about the ethics of policing. There have been several books written about the ethics of policing from secular viewpoints, but little that is consciously theological. Winright is well qualified to address this lacuna, because he has advanced education in theological ethics, studying with Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder, among others, and he also has personal experience working in corrections and law enforcement.

The central theme of the book is an argument for a just policing, or community policing, model, which the author outlines and advocates. It is flanked on two sides by alternatives. On the one side is pacifism, which is traditionally skeptical about Christians serving in the military or the police because both involve a willingness to use lethal force, which is viewed as incompatible with discipleship to Christ. On the other side is the “warrior cop” or Dirty Harry understanding of policing, which has led to what many observers have described as a militarization of policing in America. Such an understanding views the people, meaning mainly minorities, as the enemy who must be continually struggled against.

Winright argues that the principles of just war theory can be adapted and reshaped to fit the context of policing: just cause, right intention, last resort, avoiding civilian deaths, and so on can be employed to structure the framework for ethical policing. Winright is obviously not a pacifist, but he carries on a respectful dialogue with those who are of that persuasion throughout the book. He presents examples of the debate within pacifist circles between those who are stricter in adhering to nonviolence and those who allow for some ambiguity in recognizing the need for a Responsibility to Protect (R2P) model on the international level, and thus an analogous need for police work on the local level. To simply allow massacres and ethnic cleansing to take place, whether in Germany, Rwanda, Kosovo, or Sudan, is problematic. Analogously, it is difficult to see how a person with an assault rifle should be allowed to carry out a massacre in a school or workplace without any police force ready to be called on to stop the carnage as soon as possible.

Winright addresses the literature concerning what just policing might look like in response to the 9/11 attacks or the genocide in Rwanda. He himself has written on this subject elsewhere. His main concern in the present work is to argue that what just, restrained, and constructive police work looks like on the community level has already been outlined in the secular literature of criminology. As such, the ideas presented there can be adapted to theological ethics and enriched by insights from the long tradition of Christian reflection on the proper function of the state and its representatives. This adaptation will fill in the lacuna in Christian ethics and also be of service to the many police officers in the United States who are members of Christian congregations.

Within the debate on just war theory, there are those who argue that the presumption against harm is the foundational principle of the theory; going to war entails deciding that the political conditions in play call for an overriding of that principle. On the other side are those who argue that the basic principle of the theory is the presumption against injustice; it is the duty of the state to establish and maintain just and orderly social conditions, and the threat and use of force is needed to accomplish this end. Winright draws on the work of philosopher John Kleinig to make the case that the presumption-against-harm approach to thinking about both war and policing is superior, because the other model is too open to abuse in the direction of nationalistic excess in the case of war and the war-on-crime mentality in policing. Both errors require a sharp delineation between us and them, friends and enemies. Just peacemaking is needed on the international level, and community peacemaking and peacebuilding is needed on the local level.

Two points of criticism: First, there is some repetition of ideas and even sentences, given that this is a collection of essays written over a period of several years. A planned-out monograph would avoid that, but the repetition does have the value of showing which points the author thinks are the most important. The other point of concern is that the readers likely expect there to be a substantive chapter on the phenomenon of the killing of unarmed black persons by the police in recent decades, but there is not. Given that the author indicates he is writing a monograph on theological ethics and policing, it is reasonably expected that the topic of racial profiling and disparities in the use of lethal force on minorities would be addressed. To say that writing on this subject is long overdue is not a criticism of Winright but a question to the guild of Christian ethics more generally. Why the historical lacuna? If more attention had been paid to this topic in the past, and if theological ethics had substantively shaped police-training curricula, then the headlines of recent decades may have been quite different.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Charles K. Bellinger is associate professor of theology and ethics at Brite Divinity School.

Date of Review: 
February 24, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Tobias Winright is associate professor of theological ethics and associate professor of health care ethics at Saint Louis University. Among his publications, he coauthored After the Smoke Clears: The Just War Tradition and Post War Justice (2010), edited Green Discipleship: Catholic Theological Ethics and the Environment (2011), and coedited Can War Be Just in the 21st Century? Ethicists Engage the Tradition (2015). He was also coeditor of the Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics.


Tobias Winright

I wish to express my appreciation to Professor Charles K. Bellinger for taking the time to read this collection of previously published essays--spanning 25 years and aimed at different audiences--and for writing this generous review, accurately portrarying my work's argument to date regarding police use of force. I would like to confirm, in connection with his second friendly criticism, that I am currently working on a new monograph containing fresh material that deals with other aspects of policing, as well as with the serious problem of the disproportionate killing of black men by police in the United States. Chapter Nine, "Faith, Justice, and Ferguson," in this present collection, begins to turn attention to this, as does the "Postscript" that I wrote not long after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020, in which I address recent calls for "defunding" or "abolishing" the police. Again, I am grateful to Professor Bellinger for his kind review.


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