Writings by Cole Huffman

A Few Kind Words for Cops

Let us now praise infamous men. This summer I met an Anglican pastor from Canada. He wears a clerical collar when out and about. On the streets of his city strangers tell his children not to get into the car with him. The clerical collar identifies him as a man of the church, and men of the church are pedophiles. These are days when nuance is lost on cause célèbre narratives.

To adapt Yeats, fix upon men and women wearing markers of authority that accusing eye. My Anglican friend in Canada knows the church is broken in places, in both Protestant and Catholic expressions, and that the brokenness clings to him by proxy. Most officers and deputies of law enforcement, being unremitting realists when it comes to human nature, know the justice system they represent is broken in places. I maintain media outlets use cracked or bifurcated lenses in showing us the world’s brokenness, but Americans are seeing more clearly how deep the racial fissure is in the application of justice for all.  

David Brooks points out in a recent column that even among police themselves 57% of black officers believe treatment of minorities is unfair. Only 1 in 20 white cops think so. So we’re on to a real problem in something the Scriptures take seriously (governing authorities and doing justly) and love of neighbor cannot ignore the people the problem directly affects. As Billy Joel put it in 1989:  

“We didn't start the fire.
It was always burning
since the world's been turning.
We didn't start the fire.
No we didn't light it but we tried to fight it.”

I want to here raise my glass to crimefighting and crimefighters, but of course not from an open container in my car. That’d be a Class C misdemeanor in Tennessee, justly punishable by fine. I once had a brush with the H.P.D. (Hackleburg, Alabama Police Department). An officer escorted my date and me to their Mayberryesque station after I hit a pedestrian in his town one night.

 Hackleburg was just to the north of my hometown. My striking the pedestrian was purely an accident—and the responding officer knew it—but at the station he suggested (before my parents arrived) that if the pedestrian died I would likely face a vehicular manslaughter charge, quite a thing to tell a 16-year-old boy who was already shaking in his presence. The pedestrian did die. (I know you’re curious: It was man in his eighties who sustained a broken hip from my clipping him. He kept asking about unhurt me as they loaded him into the ambulance: How is that young man? His cause of death was fluid accumulation in his lungs while in the hospital recuperating.) His family sued mine, and the homer officer would have testified against me though the evidence proved it was accidental. The case was settled out of court. As to other blots on the police blotter, my mother, who edited our hometown newspaper, later broke the story that our county sheriff was a bootlegger.

So I have no illusions. Crimefighters can be criminal themselves. They can be credulous and they can do contemptible things. Justice systems even failed God in flesh, as attorney David Skeel points out in his book True Paradox:

“The Jewish and Roman legal systems were not unusually bad—especially by ancient legal standards. They were two of the finest legal systems the world had ever known, and this is precisely the point. The hero of the Christian story was murdered by impressive legal systems, not transparently evil ones. Lest we think it is simply an accident that one system of law failed, the Jesus story shows that even two legal systems working together and potentially correcting one another cannot ensure a just outcome. The justice paradox lies at the very heart of the Christian story” (126).

Still, I think law enforcement individuals are among our finest people for the most part. The present cultural clime seems overly disrespectful of them and their work. The evangelical church, increasingly activist, especially needs to mind her tone. To advocate by agitating is usually not wisdom’s finest hour on reflection. Anger is a very self-justifying emotion and when sustained or fed creates more insidious kinds of self-righteousness.

Napoleon’s archbishop, the Prince de Rohan, wrote to him just before his coronation. Napoleon was the law in France. A suck-up to authority, the archbishop lauded his emperor, declaring that he hoped to give his life for him, and then this: “The great Napoleon is my tutelary divinity.” Napoleon knew how to respond to his courtier, giving instructions to his treasurer to pay the archbishop 12,000 francs—out of the theatrical fund. Somewhere between that kind of my-liege-can-do-no-wrong fawning and the jaundice of perpetual adolescent armchair anarchists who regard law enforcement/governing authorities with suspicion, derision, and revulsion is the church’s faithful stewardship of this cultural moment, working for justice for all while “honoring everyone, loving the brotherhood, fearing God, honoring the emperor” (1 Peter 2:17).  

I have a good friend who is a First Responder with the Shelby County Sheriff. He wears a uniform and drives a sheriff’s department vehicle when on duty. By appearance he can be mistaken for a deputy. He told me recently about driving along with his partner and they noticed a driver in an SUV “giving them the finger.” The driver’s wife and children were in the vehicle, but the driver was shielding his extended middle finger in a way only my friend and his partner could see.

The SUV sped on ahead and turned into an evangelical church’s parking lot. It was a Wednesday evening. The First Responders decided to pull in too. My friend said the color drained from the SUV driver’s face when he saw the sheriff department’s truck and the men he flipped off beckoning him over. The driver was taking his small children out of the SUV for church activities. When he came over my friend said to him, “I saw what you did back there.” The driver swallowed hard, clearly nervous. My friend continued, “I just want you to know that I love the Lord Jesus and I hope you have a good night.” He then rolled up the window and drove away.

I worry right now that in “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” and “I Can’t Breathe” empathies expressed—especially by our younger generations—a collective middle finger is being extended at law enforcement, even from people who regularly pull into church parking lots. Among the things that ought not be these things ought not be either. “The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere” (James 3:17). And James goes on: A harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. Many who do for our common good are wearing badges.

Posted by Cole Huffman at 11:37 AM
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12/10/2014 at 04:00 PM by Will Raines

While I do not pretend to speak for my entire generation, I thought that I might give you the perspective of someone who is a member of a younger generation (I am 28) and wholeheartedly supports the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” and “I Can’t Breathe” empathies being expressed. I am outraged about the Michael Brown and Eric Garner non-indictments. Just based on social media and conversations with those I know, I get the sense that many people around my age feel the same way, while a large percentage of older generations lack this same outrage. I believe that most people from older generations, if they were forced to give an opinion, would say that what happened was wrong, but they do not seem to feel nearly as strongly about it. These admittedly anecdotal observations have me worried that the Southern white church will repeat the mistakes it made during the Civil Rights Movement, when eight Alabama clergymen drafted an open letter (“A Call for Unity”) urging people to withdraw support from the non-violent demonstrations of Martin Luther King, Jr., saying, “We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized. But we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely.” In MLK’s response to the clergymen in Alabama (“Letter from Birmingham Jail”), he said that he almost believed that a bigger stumbling block to the Civil Rights Movement than the KKK was “the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” He explained that the purpose of their non-violent demonstrations was “to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.” I do not intend for my support of the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” and “I Can’t Breathe” empathies to be a middle finger to the police, and I don’t think that most in my generation do either. Rather, my hope is that a tension is created that forces people to truly confront the issues, instead of halfheartedly admitting, “Yeah, I guess that was probably wrong.” I want this tension to be created because I don’t want what MLK said about the church in his letter to the Alabama clergymen to also be true today: “The contemporary church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s often vocal sanction of things as they are.” I am certainly not trying to make any accusations towards you. I always appreciate your thoughtful take on issues. And I understand that some people take their disrespect of police too far. I just wanted to provide an alternative explanation for some of the reactions of the younger generations to these recent events.

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