How the Church Failed Christopher Dorner

The ex-cop vigilante released a manifesto detailing a litany of misdeeds suffered. But he missed an obvious target - the church.

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.

About the author, Jelani Greenidge

Jelani Greenidge is an UrbanFaith columnist based in Portland, Oregon. A writer and musician, he blogs at JelaniGreenidge.com.
  1. I could not disagree with you more when you say “If the church was really functioning as God intended, these murders would not have happened”. The church’s job is not to redeem a culture. It’s job is to bring individuals to the One Who does redeem them and makes them part of His kingdom. Yes, the church is to be a redeeming influence (see Matthew 5:13 – 16) in the culture, but we are not the Savior. To lay at the feet of the church the insane acts of this individual is wrong. I do admit that the church has been off point in many ways throughout history, but evil is evil. This individual is on an evil rampage and he’s looking to blame others for it. In all actuality, the evil he perceives is his excuse to carry out his heinous acts.

    What about his parents or extended family? What blame do they have in all this?

    • As for your last question, I would say there’s probably some culpability there also.

      You said, “to lay at the feet of the church the insane acts of this individual is wrong.” You seem to imply that I’m assigning all of the culpability to the church, when I said outright in two separate parts of the essay that he bears individual responsibility for what he’s done.

      My claim here is not that the church is totally at fault, but that as members of the church worldwide, we all should wrestle with how we can better connect with people like Dorner, and the extent to which we’re not reaching them, that means we’re somewhat culpable. I’m not going to assign a number… (5%? 15?% 25%?) because that’s not the point. The point is that the church needs to change if it’s going to reach people like Dorner.

  2. How is the church to spot individuals like Dorner? How is the church to minister to a Dorner once we spot him/her? I know the church is supposed to love one another and reach out to others who are lost. My objection is assigning any blame to the church. By your reasoning, any crimes committed by anyone, the church is at least partly responsible because we haven’t reached them with the Gospel.

    How do we know that no one attempted to reach out to Mr. Dorner? How do we know that no one attempted to show him love? All we know is his story and considering the things he’s done, why should we believe any of his accusations?

    How is the church to change that will enable us to reach people like Mr. Dorner?

  3. I’m not sure you’re understanding my basic thesis.

    I’m not saying the church needs to act as an early detection warning system. The point is not to love people as a means to thwarting horrific acts, but to use the commission of these acts as a sign that something has gone wrong in the way we’ve gone about things. You’re right, evil is evil… but I read somewhere we’re supposed to overcome evil with good. True, we don’t know whether others might have tried in vain to reach out to him… but that’s part of my point. Even if certain individuals might have tried and failed to reach out to him, if all the churches in his area were functioning as true communities of people extending love and grace and not plagued with so much prejudice and country-club-ism (sorry, a terrible term but the only one I can think of at the moment) then someone might have reached out to him four years ago when he lost his badge in the first place.

    To me, the BEST QUESTION IS YOUR LAST ONE, and that’s the point. The point of the whole article is to get people to wrestle with that last question. If you’re asking that question, then I’ve done my job.

  4. But just so that I’m never accused of bringing up problems without offering solutions, here’s one.

    Churches can diversify their worship music selections and stop singing as much Chris Tomlin music.

    This is an oversimplified response, but just follow my logic for a moment… churches do more different kinds of music, which has the potential to draw different kinds of people to the church… which in turn makes the church less homogeneous, which then makes it possible for others in the church to understand why it might’ve been difficult for Dorner to have been kicked off the force after experiencing what he considered to be retaliation for whistleblowing on institutional and interpersonal racism… others surround him in prayer and support, maybe even helping to assist him in pursuing other employment… the truth of the gospel becomes more real to him, and he is able to forgive others who have wronged him instead of plotting revenge.

    there you go.

    Now is that a perfect solution? Of course not. But it’s SOMETHING.

    You don’t like that idea? GREAT… come up with something else.

  5. I agree with you that the church as a whole should do better to reach out to people. Parts of Camus Crusade for Christ were specifically developed for this, and a New Breed ministries has started to develop church plants in local communities that existing churches cannot or do not reach. However, lets not forget that responding to the power of Christ is ultimately between the Holy Spirit and the individual. The claim you make suggests that if anyone rejects Christ (as his own manifesto implies he did), then the church is culpable to some degree because he was unreached. First, we do not know if anyone did reach out to him or not. Second, if someone did, how can the church that made an honest attempt (possibly many) be held responsible for what happened to him if he rejected all the assistance offered? This is like suggesting that a musician that barely learned to read music and won’t pay attention to the conductor or play with fellow musicians is a bad musician because of them.

  6. Such a thought provoking article, with so many things to ponder. The statement “If the church was really functioning as God intended, these murders would not have happened.” is an interesting conclusion. It assumes first the church failed. Justice, which Dorner desired and deserved, requires we hear both sides of the story. Maybe the church did everything they could and Dorner just rejected it? Or maybe it was a draw, some good and bad on both parties? Regardless, that seems to assume a perfect church would prevent murder (at least some). That is a lot of responsibility for the church. I would counter that God in His perfection, doesn’t lose a single one of His own. Our responsibility is rather simple: love everyone like He has loved, not knowing who God has “picked” but hoping all, including Dorner find mercy and forgiveness at the throne of justice….