Lies Hip Hop Told Me: F**k Tha Police
N.W.A.’s 1988 song “F**k tha Police” was more than a mere song. It was an anthem in cities across the country. It became such because it powerfully captured a popular sentiment, namely, that “911 is a Joke” (as Flavor Flav famously put it) and that police officers commonly abuse their power in their policing of minority neighborhoods.
At the time, the song drew much attention from the media, primarily because of the song’s multiple references to the killing of police officers. Apart from those inflammatory threats the song included more truth than the media was willing to admit, as any black male in any American city already knew, and as the entire world would discover after the Rodney King “incident” in N.W.A.’s hometown of LA just four years later. Thus, for all of its vulgar language and hardcore posturing, “F**k tha Police” communicated some truths that needed to be shared. But it did not only communicate truth. N.W.A.’s hit also communicated a lie that has been a part of hip-hop culture ever since. They communicated the lie that, at best, people in authority should only be respected if they earn that respect and, at worst, that authority should be rejected altogether. This common lie has helped to produce multiple generations of people who not only refuse to honor the authority of government and civil servants but reject the authority of religion, teachers, and parents as well. As one who believed this lie for many years I know how disastrous its consequences can be, both for the person who rejects authority and for the society that person lives in. Thankfully, the God of the Bible offers us a true and better perspective on authority.
First, God acknowledges that those in authority are often corrupt and that their corruption harms the people they are supposed to serve. In spite of flaws in the overall philosophy of “F**k Tha Police,” it is perfectly appropriate for N.W.A. and anyone else to call attention to the unjust treatment Americans of Color receive from the police. Unlike some who serve in our “justice” system, God does not turn a blind eye to injustice. Instead, he exposes it. Through his prophet Ezekiel, God chastises the leaders of Israel for their self-serving leadership. “Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally” (Ezekiel 34:2-4). While the people living under these corrupt leaders may be powerless to protect themselves from these abuses God promises that he will make things right. “I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them” (Ezekiel 34:10). Elsewhere God similarly exposes the corrupt priesthood (Malachi 2:1-9), corrupt kings (1 Samuel 15:13-29), and false prophets (Jeremiah 23:25-40). Clearly, God is even less pleased with the injustices perpetrated by some authorities than the average rapper. And he promises to do something about it.
Second, while God acknowledges that many in authority are corrupt and will have to answer to him for it he still requires that his people serve those authorities for as long as they remain. In Matthew 22:15-22 we read of an encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees. In this account the Pharisees approach Jesus and, intending to trap him, ask if Jews should pay imperial tax to Caesar. If he says “yes” then they will use his answer to discredit him in the eyes of the Jews, who are troubled by the injustices of the Roman occupation in Israel. If he says “no” then they will use his answer to discredit him in the eyes of the Romans, who will not tolerate rebellion against Caesar. Jesus perceives this and answers brilliantly, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” When they did Jesus held it up and asked, “Whose image is this?” The people answered “Caesar’s” since his image was on Roman coins just as dead presidents are on ours. Having drawn attention to Caesar’s image on the coin Jesus concluded, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” With this answer Jesus successfully escaped their trap. He also taught his audience an important lesson. Even if he ruled wrongly, Caesar had the authority to claim what belonged to him (such as taxes, civil obedience, honor, and the like) and we are responsible to give it to him. Even more, as people who bear God’s image we belong to God just as the coin bearing Caesar’s image belonged to Caesar. As such, while we must give some things to the human authorities that rule over us we must give our entire being to the God who made us – and so must the authorities themselves.
Third, God tells us that if we refuse to honor and submit to the authorities placed over us we are refusing to honor and submit to him. This is true irrespective of how well (or poorly) the authorities govern. The Apostle Paul explains in Romans 13:1-7, “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. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.” Paul wrote these words under the infallible inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Moreover, he did so while living under the Roman Emperor Nero. Nero was infamous for his corruption and notorious for his poor government. He was also vicious toward Christians and led a persecution of them in Rome that is believed to have included the beheading of Paul himself. If these words applied in Paul’s situation, how much more must they apply in ours? We do not get to decide which authorities are worthy of our submission and honor and which authorities are not. All authorities are appointed by God and are to be honored and obeyed as such as long as they are not demanding from us what belongs to God. Ultimately, this has nothing to do with our respect for the person in authority and everything to do with the God who placed him there. This is why Peter, writing to Christians scattered by persecution, tells us to submit to every human authority “for the Lord’s sake” (1 Peter 2:13).
Fourth, God is not satisfied if we only do what the authorities demand of us. He wants us to go beyond their requests and to seek their good by praying for them. Paul writes, “I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone— for kings and all those in authority” (1 Timothy 2:1-2). Again it is important to note that Paul wrote these words while living under a corrupt and violent Roman Emperor. Nevertheless, he encouraged Christians to pray for anyone and everyone in authority for three reasons.
One reason we are to pray for those in authority is “that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (1 Timothy 2:2). This simply means that we are to pray for those in authority as a means of protecting the Church’s witness to the world. That is not to say that if we pray for authorities we are guaranteed freedom from conflict. It means, instead, that we ought to do everything we can to open the door for the gospel. We are not to rebel against authorities or ridicule the authorities, both of which make it difficult for us to preach the gospel and for our hearers to believe our testimony. We are to pray for the authorities that the gospel might reach them and that they might allow us to freely preach it to others.
Another reason we are to pray for those in authority is because it “is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:3-4). We pray for the conversion of those in authority not only because it benefits us but also because it brings great pleasure to God. Anytime we pray for God to save anyone – even those who abuse their authority – we pray in line with God’s heartbeat.
A third reason that we are to pray for all people, especially those in authority, is that such prayers bring praise to Jesus Christ who died so that all kinds of people could be saved. This is what Paul is addressing when he adds, “For there is one God and one mediator between God and human beings, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself as a ransom for all people” (1 Timothy 2:5-6). Jesus died to save bad people. That means he died to save people like you and me and people like the racist, power-abusing police officers N.W.A. rapped about. When we pray for people in authority we glorify Jesus by acknowledging that he alone is able to rescue us (and others) from our slavery to evil and unite us (and others) to God.
Thus far we have seen that God is watching those who abuse their authority and will require that they answer to him. As his servants, we can and should publicly expose evil and injustice when we encounter it. No Christian should be silent in the face of inequitable and unjust policing, like that we have seen in the public eye recently. We have also seen that until the authorities are forced to answer to God, he requires that we serve them, honor and submit to them, and pray for them. While this may seem foolish on the surface we are able to do so with confidence because we serve Jesus Christ, the Ultimate Authority and the Perfect Ruler, who holds us, and all of history, in the palm of his hand. We can entrust ourselves to him knowing that one day he will physically return to this earth to destroy all corruption, judge all wickedness, and eliminate all injustice forever (see Revelation 19). This future hope empowers us to live in the kingdom of this world while praying to God, “your kingdom come…on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).