Cops Can’t Be Our Saviors
The more I see of Dallas Police Chief David Brown, the more respect and affection I have for him. Here’s a clip from his press briefing today:
We’re asking cops to do too much in this country. We are. We just ask of us to do too much. Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve. Not enough mental-health funding. Let the cop handle it. Not enough drug-addiction funding. Let’s give it to the cops. Here in Dallas, we got a loose-dog problem. Let’s have the cops chase loose dogs. Schools fail, give it to the cops. Seventy percent of the African American community is being raised by single women. Let’s give it to the cops to solve that as well. That’s too much to ask. Policing was never meant to solve all those problems, and I just ask for other parts of our democracy, along with the free press, to help us. . . .
Serve your communities. Don’t be a part of the problem. We’re hiring. We’re hiring. Get off that protest line and put an application in. And we’ll put you in your neighborhood, and we will help you resolve some of the problems you’re protesting about.
Chief Brown tells it straight. But it’s not just cops. It’s teachers too. This line from J.D. Vance’s new book Hillbilly Elegy:
As a teacher at my old high school told me recently, ‘They want us to be shepherds to these kids. But no one wants to talk about the fact that many of them are raised by wolves.’
I know there are bad, lazy teachers in this world, but I get tired of the way so many people are quick to blame the problems of our schools on teachers in general. I don’t know how many of you readers are teachers, or know teachers, but they are on the front lines of America’s social unraveling. We expect them to be both parents and social workers, because so many parents are functionally AWOL. No politician is ever going to blame lousy parents for the fact that their kids are doing badly in school. No politician is ever going to tell a parent that they don’t have a right to expect society’s institutions to make up for their own laziness and selfishness. Just blame the teachers.
I’m thinking tonight of something I heard a friend’s mom say a few years back when I was having dinner at their place. “The churches don’t teach these young people anything about the Bible anymore,” she said. “They don’t even teach the Ten Commandments.”
My friend, who is a practicing Christian, said, “Hey Mom, what are the Ten Commandments?” His mother managed two or three of them, but that was it. He said to her, “I’m not sure how you would know what the churches do or don’t teach kids, because you hardly ever go to church.” Oh, the old lady was mad!
Later, my friend and I were talking about that exchange. I said that his mother had a point. The research on Moralistic Therapeutic Deism proves it.
“I know that,” he said. “I just get tired of hearing my mother blame pastors for everything. You think she ever taught me anything about the Bible growing up?”
And you know, I had to reflect on how a Catholic priest friend put Catholic me and my best Catholic friend in our places back around the year 2000. We just loved to complain about all the church’s failings, especially of catechesis. Our priest friend was often murder on the church’s shortcomings, but he had had enough of our griping. He said that we had no reason to sit around waiting for the clergy and the institution to get its act together. Read! he said. Educate yourselves in the faith! What are you waiting for?
That advice has stayed with me all these years. Come to think of it, it’s part of the spirit of this Benedict Option book I’m not far from finishing. It’s about how Christians cannot outsource the religious and moral formation of our children to churches and religious schools that are in some cases overwhelmed, and in other cases too weak or unbelieving to do the job. And even if the church or school is really good at it, it’s still our job to teach our kids, and to help those religious instructors complete their mission. Just like it’s our job to raise our kids right, and discipline them, rather than let them run wild and expect the police to handle it.
One of the big lessons of J.D. Vance’s book is that so many of those poor white people — Vance’s people — were the authors of their own misery, and visited all that misery on their children, who fell into the same cycle of despair, including drug abuse. Vance speaks bluntly and persuasively about how people condemn themselves and their children to mental slavery through mind-forg’d manacles of self-pity and fatalism. His point is not that people have not suffered from injustice, economic and otherwise. He does not say that they are to blame entirely for their condition. Rather, his point is that despite the rotten hand these people have been dealt, the only way to break the cycle, if it can be broken, is to take responsibility for oneself, and to believe that one’s life can change through the decisions one makes — or it can remain the same, depending on the decisions one makes.
This is true of every single one of us, rich, poor, and otherwise. I’m not talking “think and grow rich” nonsense. I’m talking about self-control. Thank God my priest Father Matthew did not pity me when I came to him full of anger at my dad for his hard-headedness, and the way he kept hurting me. My father really was guilty of these things, and for all I knew, Father Matthew felt sorry for me having to struggle with them. But he never once let me feel sorry for myself, or settle for one second into the role of victim — this, even though I was being treated unjustly, with serious physical and emotional effects. Rather, he insisted firmly on my Christian duty to love my dad, period. That didn’t mean put up with his mistreating me, but it did mean not allowing anger at injustice rule my heart. In fact, Father Matthew told me that I’m not responsible before God for my dad’s sins, but for my own. What am I doing about them? Am I rooting them out in my heart and repenting of them? If not, why not? What’s my excuse?
I knew he was right, even though I didn’t want to hear it, and I did what he said, though I hated doing it. Because I did, six or seven months later, I was there the day that my dad said he was sorry for the way he had treated me — a day of grace I never thought would come. And I was able to be there at my dad’s bedside on his final days, even holding his hand as he drew his last breath. It was a gift — a priceless gift — I could not have imagined receiving in this lifetime. It would never have been mine had I stood on anger at personal injustice, and had I not been told by my spiritual father to turn on that anger in my own heart and root it out. What a severe mercy that all was. And what liberation. I’m serious: liberation. To have learned that if I allowed Him to do so, God would give me the strength not to succumb to my passions, and to realize my own moral agency.
Let me be clear here: my priest was not saying that we have to call what is unjust just, and what is a lie the truth. Nor was he blaming me for the pain I felt over the way my dad treated me. What he was saying is this: we cannot allow sin — sloth, wrathfulness, lust, gluttony, or any other sin — to conquer our hearts. All sin is disordered love, and to love justice more than love and mercy is, at least for a Christian, a sin. This is a battle we have to fight until the day we die: against the disorder in our souls and lives (and all sin is disordered love). There’s no other way to avoid defeat at the hands of the world.
Nobody wants to hear that. I sure as hell didn’t want to hear it when my priest spoke those hard words to me. But they were words of truth, and life. Not a soul on this earth could have fixed the problems I was struggling with then (or the ones I’m struggling with now). Only me, by God’s grace, and with the help of those dear ones willing to assist me. God was willing to help me, and so were the people who loved me, but without my firm and sustained assent, they would and could have done nothing. Because free will.
In J.D. Vance’s case, it took losing his free will as a US Marine to gain the gift of self-control that served him well when he got out, and still does. A people and a nation that lacks inner discipline will be the kind of people who need more cops and authority figures to tell it what to do, or at least expect to be taken care of by agents of the state and other institutions. That is not a healthy nation. It’s the difference between a nation of citizens, and a nation of consumers.
UPDATE: David Brooks has a column today, datelined San Antonio, in which he says that we came close last week to unleashing some national demons. The country is going to be led by a cynical, unethical president, but at the local level, there are leaders doing good work (like, I would say, Chief Brown). Excerpt:
America still has great resources at the local and social level. Here in San Antonio, there are cops who know how to de-escalate conflicts by showing dignity and respect. Everywhere I go there are mayors thinking practically and non-dogmatically. Can these local leaders move upward and redeem the national system, or will the national politics become so deranged that it will outweigh and corrupt all the good that is done block by block?
I’m betting the local is more powerful, that the healthy growth on the forest floor is more important than the rot in the canopy. But last week was a confidence shaker. There’s a cavity beneath what we thought was the floor of national life, and there are demons there.
Baton Rouge sure could use some effective local leadership right about now. Except for a brief appearance at a press conference, the city’s African-American mayor-president, Kip Holden, has been absent since the Alton Sterling shooting. It is shocking, really. He’s a black politician who has — or had — the confidence of whites and blacks. But the one moment when his city-parish needed him more than anything, he choked. Stayed at home while protesters and police clashed on the streets of his own city. This is what he will be remembered for.