Onward Christian Sheriff (Sep-Oct 1999)

By Matt Dabbs

by Ted Parks
September – October, 1999

“In the Book of God, we fail to find a single expression or example indicating that the child of God may engage in, carry on, upguild or uphold a kingdom of earth” (David Lipscomb, minister of the gospel, in his 1913 book Civil Government).

To say that an “honest person could not be sheriff” is “limiting the power of the gospel,” said John Cupp, also a minister of the gospel, speaking in his office in Chattanooga, Tennessee last winter.

A lot more than 85 years stands between the publication of David Lipscomb’s book on government and John cupp’s recent reflections on public service as his county’s chief law enforcement officer. Like his ancestor in the faith, John is a dedicated preacher. On the other hand, he finds himself a member of a church that, with the rest of America, has weathered two world wars, the sex-and-drug culture of the ’60s, and the sleaziness and advantage-seeking of American politics of the late ’90s. Unlike his turn-of-the-century counterpart, Cupp has chosen specifically to “engage in” and “uphold” civil government by bringing his Christian faith to the public arena.

The path to public service of John was ministry itself. He became involved in law enforcement when counseling families being pulled apart by drugs in the ’60s. In response to the counseling problems, John began piecing together what he could about drugs and drug addiction. As he grew more knowledgeable, people in public places turned to him for expert advice. After serving as Narcotics Instructor in the Chattanooga Police Department from 1973-78, Cupp was invited by then-Sheriff H.Q. Evatt to initiate the Narcotics Information Division of the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Department. During 14 years of work in drug education, John spoke to more than 450,000 people in schools, churches, synagogues, and businesses scattered throughout 27 states. His reputation reached all the way to Washington, where the White House chose him in 1987 as a consultant for the Drug-Free School Program.

To run for sheriff in 1994, John had to confront a political machine in place for 30 years. A high point of his first term of office was cracking the Signal Murder Case, a gruesome triple homicide that had baffled the sheriff’s department since the late ’80s. The people of Hamilton County in 1998 voted almost two-to-one to elect Cupp to a second term that will keep him in office until 2002.

The spiritual journey that would lead John Cupp to political office began with a strict Roman Catholic upbringing. During his high school years, John grew frustrated when his questions met with the unsatisfying promise that all would come clear with a little patience. He turned up the intensity of his religious search. John describes meeting the daughter of Flavil Orange, a preacher in Youngstown, Ohio, his hometown: “I went to church with her, terrified” of God’s retribution for stepping outside his tradition. “The Oranges took me in as a son in the faith,” John remembers, adding that he was baptized into Christ on March 5, 1950 in Youngstown.

John attempted to preach his first sermon that year, then got the chance to attend Florida Christian College when the school offered him a $150 scholarship. He left Florida Christian in 1952 to begin what would become a lifetime of preaching. From central Florida, John went to Miami, then, a year later, to Marathon in the Florida Keys. In March of 1955, John moved to Tennessee, where his ministry would become the matrix of his public service. Except for a three-year stint in Rochester, New York, John has ministered in the Chattanooga area since 1955.

John approaches the historically controversial relationship between the Kingdom of God and politics by emphasizing each individual’s right and obligation to live by Christian principles. “You can have high moral standards,” John insisted, illustrating with his own experience with the unhappy mix of alcoholo and police get-togethers. Heavy drinkers at police functions noticed, he explained, when he stuck to his scruples about drinking. When a fellow officer would own up to an alcohol problem, he would remember John and turn to him for advice and help. “People respect your standards,” John says. “You don’t have to preach a sermon; you can walk a sermon; you can live a sermon.”

While John sees serving as a Christian sheriff as primarily an expression of his personal choice to follow Christian moral principles, the job brings him into contact with broader social issues, such as the way prisoners are treatd. As sheriff, John is also jail keeper. He has stressed to corrections officers that, however repulsive inmates’ crimes, prisoners “are human beings, and they will be treated as human beings.” In a jail once plagued with inmate fighting, John is determined to reduce th inhumanity of the place. “The Golden Rule works wonderfully in police work,” he says.

John has also tried to use Golden Rule fairness in hiring, but not everyone thinks he has succeeded. A Sheriff’s Department officer accused John of reassigning him from DUI to regular patrol on political grounds. The Civil Service Board, however, ruled in John’s favor last december. John’s fairness came through in the press as the Chattanooga paper quotd him: “If I made a mistake, I want them to tell me, and if I’m correct I expect to be told.” John is committed to replacing “good ol’boy favoritism with hiring and promotion practices based on qualifications. He says that “running this office in a proper way,” with respect for the public, is his greatest Christian challenge as sheriff of Hamilton County.

Sheriff John Cupp is a model of how Christians can walk in the light of God’s kingdom and at the same time shine that light into the murk of modern life. But his active public participation in law enforcement runs counter to the pacifist strain often found in Restoration Movement thought. To ground his work in the teachings of the Bible, John cites cases from the New Testament where Christians seemed to legitimize the political system. He refers to Paul’s dependence on Roman jurisprudence in his appeal to Caesar, and Cornelius, a military officer portrayed as an exemplary convert to the faith. While the New Testament prioritizes allegiance to God over civil obedience when the two conflict, it is not accurate to say that “Because it’s government it’s bad,” John argues.

John Cupp would like to see more Christians confront the issues that surround them. Chritians should be involved in public affairs “a whole lot more than they are now,” he insists. John understands that many Christians disagree with him, just as they did when he served as PTA president in the ’60s. But he believes he time has come for Christians to make their influence felt, even if their service to Christ takes them to the halls of government.

Cupp is not the only Christian serving in law enforcement. The Fellowship of Christian Police Officers, for example, dedicates itself to strengthening the faith of peace officers from various traditions. He’s not alone, even in Chattanooga, where Chief of Police James Dotson describes John as a mentor. Dotson, a former Baptist who is now active in a community church, praises Cupp as an “asset to the law enforcement profession.”

As historian Richard Hughes has pointed out, the response of Restoration Christians to civic duty became especially troubling at the start of the century when America faced the first of the international conflicts that would scar the the next hundred years. Now, at the en of a century and the brink of anew millennium, believers still wrestle with their dual members ship in heavenly and earthly realms, with Jesus’ radical call for forgiveness and the prophetic roar for justice. As Christian Sheriff John Cupp moves forward in his quiet but faithful walk, he challenges other believers, wherever God has put them in the political and social structure, to serve both God and man with faith and integrity.Wineskins Magazine

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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