Christopher Dorner, former Los Angeles Police Officer who is suspected of killing three individuals (Photo Credit: Robyn Beck/Newscom)

For the unaware, Christopher Dorner is a former officer of the Los Angeles Police Department wanted in connection with three murders – crimes for which he appeared to implicate himself in a long manifesto posted online. In it, he claims he was ejected from the force because he was trying to blow the whistle on rampant use of excessive force, abuse of power, cover-ups, and both institutional and interpersonal racism. He also claimed that, having exhausted all legal avenues to clear his name, these crimes are the only thing that will get the city’s attention and compel the LAPD to really clean up its act.

First, the obvious but necessary disclaimer:

Even if all of Dorner’s accusations are proven to be 100% correct, there is no legal or ethical justification for the murder of three innocent people. For these crimes, Christopher Dorner will be caught and brought to justice, even if that means by deadly force. At this point, that seems to be the most inevitable outcome.

Also, I generally don’t like to draw attention to this kind of writing, because I think it’s unwise to enable a criminal’s desire for attention. Thus, I was aware of this story for several days before I actually read what Dorner wrote.

But once I started, I couldn’t stop. And what I read troubled me greatly. Most troubling, of course, were the accusations leveled against several officers of the law – accusations that seemed, to me at least, as being too specific and numerous to be delusions of paranoia. Given the LAPD’s history with high-profile incidents of questionable behavior, it’s reasonable to conclude that there is truth in some of Dorner’s claims – though it’s not clear how much truth.

But this passage – edited for length and clarity – is what really floored me, where Dorner describes his background and upbringing, trying to shed some light on why an officer and war veteran would choose to retaliate in such a conspicuous, bloody way:

Find any incidents where I was ever accused of being a bully. You won’t, because it doesn’t exist. It’s not in my DNA. Never was. I was the only black kid in each of my elementary school classes from first grade to seventh grade in junior high and any instances where I was disciplined for fighting was in response to fellow students provoking common childhood schoolyard fights … My first recollection of racism was in the first grade at Norwalk Christian elementary school in Norwalk, CA. A fellow student called me a n—– on the playground. … I struck him fast and hard with a punch and kick. The principal swatted Jim for using a derogatory word toward me, then swatted me for striking Jim in response. He stated, ‘as good Christians we are to turn the other cheek as Jesus did’. Problem is, I’m not a f—ing Christian and that old book, made of fiction and limited non-fiction, called the bible, never once stated Jesus was called a n—–. How dare you swat me for standing up for my rights for demanding that I be treated as an equal human being. 

This, alongside other passages of his manifesto, paints a visceral picture of a man who lost his faith in the systems and structures that had guided him personally and professionally. Dorner speaks forcefully and eloquently about adhering to his moral compass despite the corruption around him (he calls it his “true north”). And other than this brief episode, he never refers to God or the church.

Not once.

I don’t mean to discount Dorner’s personal agency in the matter. As individuals, we all bear an individual responsibility for our actions. However, as Donne reminds us, no man is an island. We are all bound, socially and emotionally, to the institutions that guide us and give us meaning. And reading Dorner’s manifesto, I can’t shake the feeling that this is a man in desperate need of a church community.

First off, it seems like he had no one who could talk him down from taking such drastic measures. All we know publicly of his support circle is an ex-girlfriend who posted a negative review on a dating site. No priest, no pastor, no small group. No one to forcefully warn him about how much damage he could do to his legacy by going against everything the badge and uniform represent.

I am convinced that Christopher Dorner regarded the American church with the same bitter disdain that he carried for the institutions of state law enforcement – even though both spheres have a few bad apples that spoil the reputation of the upstanding majority.  Even as an adult, he was unable to make the connection between the racial persecution he suffered as a child and the persecution that Jesus suffered as a man. His eyes saw another institutional culture resistant to reform, and had no reason to believe the church could be any different.

This, to me, is the church’s essential failing. For Christopher Dorner and others like him struggling under the weight of racism and corruption in virtually every sphere of public life, pat answers are not enough. Generic moralistic therapeutic deism, where God exists to help good people do good things and live good lives… won’t cut it. Sometimes good people get screwed, and people like Dorner have been leaving churches in droves for years because their doubts and frustrations aren’t being addressed.

As a Christian, I believe the church is unique among societal institutions in that it’s the only avenue for true reconciliation across barriers of race, culture and class. Under the cross, we are all sinners, and yet through God’s grace we all get to participate in His redemptive process of bringing love, light and justice to the world.

But in the American church, we’ve allowed uniformity to become a substitute for integrity, where our misdeeds are never challenged because they’re reinforced by the blind spots in our cultural norms. Somewhere along the line, the church traded in its humility for political expediency. And people like Christopher Dorner got lost in the shuffle.

As for easy answers, there aren’t any. But part of the solution, at least for now, is for good, socially acceptable churchgoing people to sit with this mess, and wrestle with culpability. If the church was really functioning as God intended, these murders would not have happened.

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