A Nation Divided Against Itself
Several weeks ago, resource officer Ben Fields made national news as he carried out discipline against an unruly and uncooperative female student in Spring Valley High School in South Carolina. The event sparked controversy because of the recent racial tensions brewing across the country, with the police force at the center of the debate.
The story aired in my living room as I ate dinner with my own children. Even at first viewing, I could see that the media was choosing to lambast the officer and excuse the student. Little context was provided as to why the officer’s actions were necessary and the commentator stressed how the other students were “watching in shock and fear” as the events unfolded. By the end of the story, my hackles were up. I had some feisty conversations in the following days with my own high school students. We watched the clips and some of the interviews, and both sides of the issue were well-represented in the classroom.
This individual story represents an alarming trend toward suspicion of authority that echoes the violent outbreaks of Ferguson. The issues are complex and multi-layered, which makes it difficult to wrap our minds around them, but we can all agree that we need peace and security instead of chaos and violence. Here are some points to consider:
1. Authority is instituted by God. Romans 13:1 – “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” Our sin nature automatically rebels against those who have been put in authority over us; none of us like to be told what to do. But the concept of authority in Scripture is a sturdy tree with deep roots and many branches; it ungirds much of our faith. When we submit to the various levels of authority in our lives, God is honored, because we do this unto Him.
a. On the other hand, authority can be abused. The stain of sin permeates every level of society, and no one is completely immune. People make poor choices, racism is a real issue, and it is very difficult for even a good man to remain completely objective and just in every decision.
b. However, while authority will fail sometimes, it is a good and necessary institution. When wholesale suspicion of authority is being swallowed by a nation, the nation is in trouble. Jesus warned, “A nation divided against itself will fall.” If we turn on the authority that is there for our protection, we have lost some of the strength that formed our great nation. We must find ways to strengthen and refine the systems in place.
2. Discipline is not pretty. One of my students protested that force is never necessary in a high school. While I wish that sentiment were true, I don’t believe it is. Force is necessary when compliance is refused. Whether or not the officer used excessive force is not clear, but the student was given at least three opportunities to obey the authorities placed over her before force was necessary.
My husband and I are not forceful people, but when we were training our young children, sometimes force was necessary to teach them to obey us. Their obedience to our authority is a cornerstone of our family’s peace and security. And sometimes the discipline that was necessary while our children were learning to obey did not look pretty. I would even venture to suggest that if you took a 15-second video clip of me disciplining my children and showed it to the public without context (as happened to Ben Fields), you might draw some very unflattering and untrue conclusions about me. You might not see my character or the context of our family. You might not see me holding my child after the wake of the tantrum and explaining to him or her that “I love you too much to let you act that way.”
3. Race can neither be inflated nor dismissed in upholding authority. Racial profiling happens, sadly; stereotypes are harmful, and officers of the law aren’t always going to act in perfect objectivity. We should and must work to keep justice in our country, which pleases God who is the embodiment of justice.
a. But we also cannot look at each case as solely a race issue without context. If an officer’s record reveals racial bias, this is alarming and must be addressed. But one individual incident of enforcing rules on an offender cannot automatically equal racial bigotry, or the offenders can never be prosecuted except by their own race, which is a return to segregation.
b. A balanced approach is necessary. Officers of the law make mistakes, but race is primarily a heart issue. No one can look into the heart of Ben Fields and say he is racist based on this single incident, but one can certainly look at the actions of the female student and say she is not willing to obey authority. When authority is ignored, consequences follow. If no consequences occur, schools will dissolve into chaos and learning will not take place.
Every time I step into my own classroom, I have to think about the class as a whole. One disruptive student may not seem like much to some, but I know that very little learning takes place when a student is allowed to continue in disruptive behavior. For us to operate as a working classroom, I have to address disciplinary concerns that arise. That’s not comfortable, but it is necessary. The same thing is true on a larger scale with our country. I wish we lived in a world where force is not necessary, but as long as criminal behavior is present, force is necessary to keep law-abiding citizens safe.
As Christians, we must seek to protect and encourage those who are marginalized while upholding the authority that God has instituted for our protection, always trusting Christ in our hearts to work out all things for our good and His glory.