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Indonesia’s Worst Police Scandal Involves Christians. Leaders Assess the Implications.

As former police general Ferdy Sambo gets death sentence for murder coverup, four Christians reflect on how to live faithfully under corrupt authorities.
Indonesia’s Worst Police Scandal Involves Christians. Leaders Assess the Implications.
Image: Aditya Aji / Getty
Rosti Simanjuntak (center), mother of late Brigadier Yosua Hutabarat, holds a picture of her son after former head of the internal affairs for Indonesia's national police Ferdy Sambo was sentenced to death during a verdict hearing in Jakarta.

For the past year, Indonesians have been fixated on a murder trial involving a high-level Christian police general. Last week, the South Jakarta District Court sentenced former police general Ferdy Sambo to death for ordering and covering up the murder of his bodyguard, Brigadier Nofriansyah Yosua Hutabarat, who Sambo claims sexually assaulted his wife.

Initially, Sambo claimed Hutabarat died in a shootout with the police general’s aide, Richard Eliezer, in his home. Yet Hutabarat’s family became suspicious after police attempted to stop them from viewing his body. Eliezer later admitted that he shot Hutabarat under direct orders from Sambo. Sambo then put a bullet into his bodyguard’s head, Eliezer said.

The murder case is considered the worst scandal in the history of the Indonesian police force and has deteriorated the public’s trust in the police. Dozens of police officers were involved in the cover-up and have since been dishonorably discharged. A poll from October 2022, during Sambo’s trial, found that public trust in the police had dropped to 53 percent from 80 percent a year earlier. Other incidents—including the police’s aggressive use of tear gas in the deadly soccer stadium stampede last October, police corruption cases, and a spate of extrajudicial killings—have led to widespread cynicism.

Complicating the matter, Sambo, Eliezer, and Hutabarat all happen to be Christians in the Muslim-majority country.

CT asked four Indonesian Christians how believers should respond when placed under corrupt authority, as in the case of Eliezer, and as citizens in a country where police scandals are common. They also discussed how the Sambo case impacts public perceptions of the police and Christians, as well as how Christians can rightly view the police and encourage accountability to combat abuse of power.

Lotnatigor Sihombing, lecturer in ethics and leadership at Amanat Agung Theological Seminary in Jakarta

As Christians, members of society, and citizens, we view the police as an instrument of the state that has authority. Therefore, police officers must obey the law in order to protect the people and give the public a sense of security. However, their rights and obligations must be balanced, as that is a basic form of justice. When they deviate from the authority given by the state, they must be held responsible for their actions as they have sworn an oath based on their religion and belief before God.

In the Bible, the sin most often mentioned is the violation of justice. Any sin is a violation of justice, be it distributive justice, vindictive justice, or legalist justice. Even in Ecclesiastes 3:16, it is written, “In the place of judgment—wickedness was there, in the place of justice—wickedness was there.” Therefore, Christian police officers, prosecutors, judges, and lawyers must truly fear God, the source of justice, and uphold justice. Likewise, Christians in any position should not become bribers and lawbreakers.

In Eliezer’s case, we can’t fully understand the position and situation he was in at the time. Later he collaborated with the police (known in Indonesia as a justice collaborator), a valuable decision that must be respected. It meant that Eliezer knew what he was doing was wrong. Killing is a wrong action because it negates and eliminates existence. The Lord created something from nothing, while killing annihilates what already exists. Therefore, killing is an act against God, an atheistic act. Of course, the fact that Sambo and Eliezer are Christians can make non-Christian people judge, “Wow, Christians or non-Christians—they’re all the same.” Indeed, we all need God’s grace.

Jesuit priest Franz Magnis-Suseno, philosopher, theologian, and an expert witness in Eliezer’s trial, in Jakarta

The murder of junior police officer Hutabarat by a high-ranking Indonesian police officer is one of the dirtiest police crimes in Indonesian history. The fact that both the victim and the accused are Christians is undoubtedly very embarrassing for Christians, although the media hasn’t commented much on this. It has reinforced public opinion that our police are corrupt. We need to expose and fight corruption in all dimensions.

Every human being is accountable for his or her actions, even those in leadership positions. We expect our leaders to be trustworthy, to put the common good before their interest, and to conscientiously obey the law. Leaders who break the law must be punished more harshly than ordinary citizens.

In the case of Eliezer, the obligation to obey orders ends when what is commanded is evil. This is one of the most fundamental moral norms that an evil command must never be obeyed. The Nazi slogan “Befehl ist Befehl (An order is an order)” was deeply immoral. However, when Eliezer still carried out the order to shoot Hutabarat, it does not suffice to pronounce Eliezer guilty. As a young officer, he was educated in the police culture of unquestioningly obeying the direct commands of high-ranking officers. Without any opportunity to think or talk it over, Eliezer’s legal and moral culpability may be close to zero.

Tiurma M. Pitta Allagan, lecturer at the Faculty of Law, University of Indonesia in Jakarta

The police force is an instrument of the state assigned to serve the community. Without making any distinction whether the police are Christians or not, we should see them as sinful humans. It means that even the police can make mistakes because they are not free from sin. As public officials, they need the prayers of the saints to survive and protect the interests of Christians and other minority religions. The greater a person’s responsibility, the greater the accountability demanded. The responsibility of police officers is not only to adhere to the written rules but also to the norms and morals observed in the society they serve.

Eliezer’s actions are difficult to evaluate because of his position as a submissive police officer within a special division led by Sambo. He has received training as a police officer in the internal affairs division of the Indonesian National Police, where the ethics and rules integrated into his heart and mind are distinct from most people’s. I’m also not sure that he became a justice collaborator because he is a Christian. But I see that his conscience is still awake. In this case, Eliezer’s conscience coincides with Christian values. No one will ever know whether these considerations were due to Eliezer’s Christian values, except him and God.

We can support accountability and transparency by working with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and the ombudsman or writing a research article about this case. Hopefully, we can view Sambo’s case as a warning that officials are sinful human beings. Staying in the top ranks and protecting the interests of the Indonesian people, including the interests of Christians, is not easy.

Yakub Tri Handoko, founder of the Indonesian Apologetics Movement (API) and Grace Alone Ministry (GRAMI), lecturer, pastor at the Reformed Exodus Community (REC) in Surabaya

Every Christian should take any sin seriously. Love and forgiveness should never be used as an excuse to overlook misconduct. The gospel isn’t only about grace but also about the truth (John 1:14). Justice should be served.

Any public misconduct committed by a high-profile Christian will surely cast a bad impression on Christianity. It is especially true in the context of Indonesia as a Muslim-majority nation. I think our society will associate the murder case more with the police culture in Indonesia as it’s no longer a secret that corruption is rampant in this institution. However, it will undoubtedly reduce the persuasive power of Christianity. It’s unsurprising that for some people and in some contexts, evangelism is more difficult than ever.

Eliezer’s case is very unfortunate. He was under enormous pressure. No one should oversimplify the situation he found himself in. However, fear of leaders should not hinder our obedience to God. Respect for leaders doesn’t mean blind loyalty.

When a leader forces us to perform certain actions that contradict the moral law in our hearts or the teachings of the Bible, we have the right to disobey. The apostles taught us that we must be more obedient to God than to other people. Several faith heroes from the Old Testament also provide good examples, such as Daniel and his friends or the prophet Elijah. Risks and dangers are often inevitable for followers of Christ.

Christians should speak out about the urgency for more serious efforts to prevent abuse of power. Church leaders should also make their congregations aware that abuse of power occurs in various forms, even in homes and churches. Local churches should deliberately make their churches safe for everyone from abuse of power. In short, we should be more active in pursuing justice in various contexts.

In the end, the truth of God’s Word from Acts 5:29 serves as a reminder that resonates loudly for us: “We must obey God rather than human beings!”

With reporting assistance by Ivan K. Santoso.

[ This article is also available in Indonesian. ]

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