“This is my command: Love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this: to lay down his life for his friends.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Our world is broken. There is darkness everywhere we turn. It manifests itself in many different forms, sometimes masquerading as light, but it is always darkness. As the prophet Jeremiah wrote about 2600 years ago, “The heart is more deceitful than anything else, and incurable – who can understand it?” No human culture has ever been exempt from this. If all people were saints there would be no need for laws. But we aren’t. So there is. That’s not the end of the story, though. Having laws in place is meaningless unless people follow them. But we aren’t saints. Thus we are not going to follow laws meant to restrain our behavior unless we are motivated to do so by the threat of a consequence that is more inconvenient to us than our desire to have whatever the law has forbidden. Even these consequences, though, are meaningless unless there are people who are committed to upholding the law and enforcing the consequences for violating it. In other words, we need law enforcement officers. That is, we need police officers. Let’s talk today about what a blessing they are.
On the last night of Jesus’ life before His going to the cross He gave His disciples a whole lot to think about to prepare them for what was to come. John includes much of this for us in his Gospel. Standing in their sandals that evening had to be a bit like drinking from a firehose. Jesus said so many rich and deep things I’m amazed John was able to recall as much of it as He did. He must have been taking really good notes.
One of the things He said came to mind for me last week. Let me tell you what that was and then I’ll tell you why. Jesus told the group that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for a friend. The real context of this the disciples would have visibly – and violently – set before them a few hours later. Jesus’ point, though, was that a sacrificial love is the strongest love there is. Love merely expressed is largely meaningless. Love must be lived out. More than that, the truest love (an intentional decision to see someone else become more fully who God designed them to be) is motivated by a willingness to sacrifice anything up to one’s own life for the sake of one who is that love’s object. Anything less is a mere facsimile of what love should be.
What got me thinking about this last week was an invitation to take part in a memorial service for a police officer who was killed in the line of duty 25 years ago. Officer Damon Smith of the Oakboro Police Department responded to a domestic disturbance call in town. Upon arriving at the house and approaching the front door, a man ambushed him from a window with a powerful shotgun. He later died from the wounds he received. More than that, he died a hero, killed in the act of seeking to protect the weak and vulnerable. Or, to put that in terms entirely more in line with what Jesus said to His disciples, Officer Smith laid down his life for his friends. There is no greater love than that.
The life and work of a law enforcement officer is hard. It is hard beyond what the average citizen can even begin to understand. The weight they bear as they go about their regular duties is incredibly heavy. They get dressed and go to work each day knowing full well that something as simple as a traffic stop could turn in an instant from entirely routine to a violent tragedy that at the very least defines the rest of their life; at the worst ends it. I’ll put this as simply as I can: Your job probably doesn’t carry that weight with it.
This reality has always been the case even in good times when police officers were widely respected and well-thought of. We do not live in such times right now. We live in times when the dominant cultural narrative, vigorously supported by most major media voices and institutions of political and cultural power, is that law enforcement officers are a violent and largely unnecessary blight on our society. They now serve each day carrying all the weight we already talked about as well as the knowledge that if they are put in a position of having to make the terrible decision in a tragic moment to use their firearm, the quick and loud cultural narrative spin of the situation is going to frame them in the worst possible light. They will be given no benefit of the doubt. Instead, the individuals with the largest cultural megaphones are going to castigate them as Dick Dastardly-like villains who should be treated accordingly.
Consider a recent example. This week, on the same day the jury released its verdict in the Derrick Chauvin trial, another officer in Ohio was forced to use deadly force on a 15-year-old black young woman. That statement is an appalling tragedy. Our hearts should be absolutely rend to pieces for this girl and her family. We should mourn as a people that we have a culture as a nation that is even allowing for the circumstances that led to her death to exist in the first place.
But none of that rightful grief changes the actual facts of the situation. This young woman was carrying a knife, and by all visual and verbal accounts intended and even attempted to stab to death another young woman. The officer who responded to a call by this second young woman for help was a consummate professional from the moment he arrived on the scene. He approached with gentleness and attempted to make himself as non-threatening a presence in the moment as he could. His weapon was not drawn at all, but properly holstered. Then, as happens far too often, the situation evolved in a tragic direction. The first young woman – with his still standing right there – made a clear move to carry out her murderous intent.
For just a moment I want you to do what we are not called to do very often with our law enforcement officers today. I want you to put yourself in his shoes. In the moment you have a choice to make. Your actions will have permanent consequences for someone. That cannot be avoided. Whatever you choose will be a decision you have to carry with you for the rest of your life. If you do not respond with appropriate force, a young woman will likely lose her life, victim of a murder you had within your power to prevent. Her family will forever hate you for failing to do your job and protect their little girl. You will wake up many nights in a cold sweat because of the grief you bear for your dereliction of duty.
If you do respond with the force necessary to prevent this tragedy, however, the odds are high that another young woman will lose her life. And forget about some Hollywood-created scene where you manage to fire a quick shot in the shoulder or the leg that totally incapacitates the attacker and completely avoiding any loss of life. Those situations exist on film lots and not in real life. If you take this path, you will be admirably and ably doing the job you have been trained to do. You are protecting the vulnerable from the violent. At the same time, you know that you will be painted as a villain and subject to an untold amount of abuse. Your life may be threatened. The life of your family may be threatened. You may or may not receive the support you need and deserve from your superior officers and city leaders depending on their political persuasions. You could lose your job entirely. Your wife may or may not be able to handle the notoriety you will face meaning you could lose your family.
When was the last time you went to work and faced a decision with a set of consequences like this? If you’re not a law enforcement officer, I’m guessing the answer to that question is never. They face this kind of thing every single day. They face this every single day in a cultural moment like we are living in right now and yet they still get up, get dressed, kiss their families goodbye, and do it again and again and again.
My friends, these men and women are heroes deserving of nothing less than our deepest respect, gratitude, appreciation, and support. Anything less than that reveals something about us that is broken and ugly and for which we should be ashamed. No one wants to enter a hard situation knowing they will not be given the benefit of the doubt. And yet this is exactly what far, far too many of our cultural and political leaders do to these men and women in order to score cultural and political points. They make hasty, judgmental pronouncements they know will be celebrated on Twitter without even the slightest regard for the facts or even simply a fuller picture of the situation. There is no attempt to understand things from the perspective of the officer. There is only judgment and condemnation. This should not be.
Now, does this mean there are no bad officers who act in ways that betray the high trust and power of their position? By no means. But there are not more of those than there are, say, bad pastors who betray the high trust and power of their position. The difference is that there is not a great cultural movement that looks to demonize pastors every time a situation goes south.
No, the truth is that the vast, vast majority of our law enforcement officers are doing just exactly what we talked about a few moments ago. They are standing in the gap between darkness and light to hold back the darkness so the rest of us can walk in the light without fear. They do this quietly, without seeking recognition. They are public servants in a much truer sense of the phrase than most of the politicians who greedily claim such a title in spite of serving very few public interests other than their own. They bear a great weight and pay dearly the cost of carrying it so the rest of us don’t have to. They live out this love Jesus said was greater than any other in a way most of the rest of us don’t ever even approach in our lives. They are heroes.
When you get the chance today, tell them. Remind them of the value of their work. Assure them their sacrifices are not in vain. Love them back. Let us work to change the cultural narrative with the only power that can make it better: the Gospel. We’ll all be glad we did.