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The Police, the Social Order, and the Christian: Apologia and Apologies

by Richard L. Means

Dr. Means is chairman of the department of sociology and anthropology at Kalamazoo (Michigan) College. This article appeared in The Christian Century, March 19, 1975 pp. 284-287. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Fear is abroad in the land: fear of oneself, fear of the other. A creeping cynicism concerning standards of excellence brings on a numbing terror about the future. West Virginia’s citizens burn books and indict school officials. In South Dakota, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five is labeled obscene. In Kalamazoo, Michigan, Go Ask Alice, a heart-rending exposure of the drug death-cult, is removed from the library shelves by a frightened school board. William Butler Yeats anticipated the mood of these times in his poem "The Second Coming":

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

Thanatos overtakes Agape.

As a teacher of criminology, I cannot gainsay the increase in criminal activity described in the Uniform Crime Reports. The rising figures for homicide, rape, aggravated assault, armed robbery, and other antisocial acts are simply too impressive to be an artifact of statistical manipulation alone. Since crime statistics, like other social statistics, are open to various interpretations, we cannot be certain of the actual rate of increase; but we can agree that it is surely considerable.

The Possibility of a Police State

In recent months I have been involved in a study of police and sheriff’s departments. Riding in patrol cars; working with detectives; witnessing arrests, investigations and incarcerations; seeing the aftermath of robberies, burglaries, shootings and family fights; meeting drunks and runaways -- in these few months I have had more bizarre experiences than I had had previously in my entire life. Some of my liberal illusions have been shattered. In general, I find the police to be more human and more humane than one might expect -- indeed, perhaps better than the public deserves. I have encountered more profound and straightforward discussions of ethics in patrol cars than I have heard in university classrooms or at academic religious conferences.

Yet, over and over again, I have been told that "someday we will have a police state." At first I was shocked. Later, after the night patrol shift, perhaps over a beer in the more relaxed environment of the Fraternal Order of Police hall, I tried to find out what my police friends meant by that statement. What emerged is clear: This is not their hope but their expectation, not a wish but a "warning."

I do not accept all aspects of the police image of the outside world, but these men generally seem to have a rather accurate sense of the public mind. Of course, attitudes can become self-fulfilling prophecies; nonetheless, one does not have to prove the frightening possibility of a police state by inductive logic alone. It may be tasted, even smelled, and I for one take the warnings of the police most seriously.

My dreams of the future encompass two scenarios. One is the "man on horseback" theme: While thumbing through Peter Gay’s Weimar Culture, with Wagnerian music playing in the background, and between shots from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, I see the parade ground of Nuremberg, with banners flying. And on the rostrum is a man, looking strangely like the governor of Alabama, shouting to the crowd: "It cannot happen here!" The crowd responds, like a Greek chorus: "Oh yes it can, yes it can." The people in the crowd look like my neighbors, and yours.

The other scenario involves what I call the Lord of the Flies theme. This is the Hobbsian war, with each individual pitted against every other individual. It is chaos. It is Alex and his droogies in A Clockwork Orange. It is the mugging of old people in New York. It is the spraying of carcinogenic pesticides on scarce food. It is the depletion of atmospheric ozone that results from release of the propellant gas from aerosol spray cans, allowing white skins to accrue prestige by turning dark and darker and finally black, under the sun’s ultraviolet rays. It is death.

The Abiding Issues of Public Order

There is not much to be gained from professional pessimism. But we may indeed be in for hard times. The Christian churches have, at least in this land, lived a life sheltered from persecution. Unprepared for increasing social pressure, we may not know how to respond. I myself believe that the Christian faith is in a much more precarious position than most wish to recognize. The current revival of religious "feeling" to the contrary notwithstanding, external forces may overwhelm us. The churches may be only weak reeds against incipient totalitarian forces. And that which we cannot fight we will, chances are, embrace. Internally there is great disarray in the churches, Christian against Christian, as the self-immolation of the Lutheran Church -- Missouri Synod tragically illustrates. The extent of Christian confusion, clerical masochism and destructive illusions bodes ill for the future.

We have let those right-wingers who would subvert a crucial social issue to their own use tarnish and finally destroy the phrase "law and order." Perhaps it is better, then, to speak of "public order and safety." But do not be fooled into thinking that the issue of law and order was created in the minds of men like John Mitchell and Richard Nixon as a lever to lift themselves to power. It is a real, abiding, central issue for civilization and social survival, and the issue is metaphysical and religious as well as political. As Peter Berger argues in The Sacred Canopy, religious consciousness itself is the imposition of nomos, of order, on experience. If this is so, the question arises: What is to be done? Or to put it differently: What are the grounds for a Christian response to the need for public order and safety?

Clerical Charades of Relevance

It may be that what we need is a more "realistic" and logical apologetic. In his book Christian Apologetics Alan Richardson says that apologetics is "the defendant’s answer to the speech of the prosecution." Apology in its Christian sense implies the defense of the faith. Instead we have had, at least in some quarters, a weak, embarrassed set of apologies, polite excuses for the Christian faith. How did this come about? It seems to me that one element in the situation is what I call the paradox of relevance.

Certainly for the Christian who believes that Christ and society, faith and culture, and even what one might call theory and praxis, are intimately and dialectically related, the obligation to connect with secular culture is impelling. This is as it should be, for "retreatism" seems to be, as relevance’s opposite, another form of "escapism." Yet there is a paradox in the possibility that the church is becoming irrelevant precisely because it has struggled so hard these past few years to be relevant. Nothing is more pitiable, perhaps even contemptible, than the clerical charades of running up the flag for each social cause that comes down the pike.

In the first place, to relate to secular culture in a communicative sense is not the same as to identify with it. It may be that we have confused physiological and logical categories. To show sympathy and understanding is one thing; to lose a sense of transcendence and to negate the categories of Christian thinking is another. Second, it may be that an overemphasis on relevance is merely a way of avoiding work and denigrating reason. I suspect that apologetics, in the classical sense, is hard and difficult work. Also, if one stresses reason -- the Logos or the Word -- then one is by definition running counter to the McLuhanesque one-dimensional world of mass communications. One cannot be quite all the way "with it."

Another basic point, one directly related to the liberal Christians’ compulsive search for relevance, is the lack of a firm faith in objective values. By accepting the humanists’ standards of subjectivity and the relativity of values as a given -- that is, as a premise and not as a problem -- the liberal religionist has gone a long way toward betraying the grounds for public order. The best discussion of this point in Christian apologetic writing is, in my view, to be found in C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man:

From propositions about fact alone no practical conclusions can ever be drawn. "This will preserve society" cannot lead to "do this" except by mediation of "society ought to be preserved." "This will cost you your life" cannot lead directly to "do not do this"; it can lead to it only through a felt desire or an acknowledged duty of self-preservation.

Frankly, I find more serious discussion of the problems of moral relativity and political ideology in the sociological writings of Karl Mannheim and Max Scheler, and even in the structuralism of Claude Levi-Strauss, than I do in the writings of many contemporary theologians. It seems as if theologians give their time these days to writing apologies (not apologetics) for such current social fads as neo-Marxism and transactional analysis. Kierkegaard anguished over whether or not a theologian could be saved. Perhaps not. But as a layman, I am not kidding myself: if he can’t be saved, then neither can I. A theology of women’s liberation, group therapy or the modern novel will not help us much when the whirlwind, political or otherwise, descends upon us. One might as well talk about a theology of Sugar Crisps or the Boy Scouts.

Neglecting the Past

Another facet of the Christian’s problematic relationship to the public-order-and-safety issue may be found in our conscious or unconscious acceptance of the popular liberal attitude toward history. Liberal intellectuals often seem to think that historical consciousness is by definition a conservative point of view, a negation of the present. They themselves are usually future-oriented -- a tendency evidenced in the futurism fad among today’s social scientists, and the ahistorical approach if not downright antihistoricism seen in many aspects of social science.

When I was a graduate student in sociology, I spent many hours arguing and discussing such books as The Nature of Prejudice, by Gordon Allport, and Authoritarian Personality, by Theodor W. Adorno and others. These books have been superseded, quite rightly, by much contemporary work. But it is important to note that these authors stressed that racism is not only a moral issue, or a problem of sentiment or taste, but also a problem of reality, of truth, of scientific validity or invalidity. The mechanisms of stereotyping distorted the objective world, and the doctrines of racism were seen as "bad science" because so many studies -- of IQ testing, of genetics, of reality-distortion -- showed racial prejudice to be invalid. During the past decade or so, when the grounds of discussion shifted to political ideology and the civil rights struggle, much of this earlier material dropped out of the literature. It was simply taken for granted. Also, the liberal view of history, continually stressing the value of the new, along with the market pressure to produce totally new textbooks, meant that the past -- that is, these detailed scientific studies of racial stereotyping -- simply disappeared from required reading lists. The student was simply told that racial prejudice was "wrong"; no real effort was made to convince him on a logical plane.

The trouble is, there is no guarantee that the hard-won insights of the past will be passed from generation to generation. In the classes I teach I find that students who were liberal and tolerant last month are peculiarly vulnerable this month to the subtle blandishments of racism. All too easily they fall for new assaults on equality by people like Arthur Jensen and Richard Herrenstein, or for the equally unproven assumptions of the XYY-chromosome theorists who would treat potential criminal behavior by preventive biological segregation.

Edmund Burke once wrote: "Society is a partnership of the dead, the living, and the unborn. Mutilate the roots of society and tradition and the result must inevitably be the isolation of individuals from their fellow men, and the creation of sprawling, faceless masses." There is something profoundly wrong with a society or a religion that neglects its own past. Certainly this omission is the opening wedge for religious intolerance and prejudice. I fear that many of the newer forms of religious bigotry, the Jesus freaks and other sectarian totalitarians, represent the conversion of thoroughly secularized individuals to a Christian tradition that they actually care little about in any historical sense.

An Objective Ground for Value Claims

Returning to my experience with the police, I recall a young police lieutenant in charge of training, with whom I discussed the qualities that make for a good police officer. The lieutenant -- bright, well trained, a college and university graduate, one of the new-breed professionals -- observed that one could not accurately predict who would make a good cop and who wouldn’t. One could tell only through job performance. The fancy battery of tests was not too useful. There is a high turnover rate in police work, he said. The hours are erratic, there is a certain amount of danger, and the pay is generally low. Many officers eventually drift into an attitude of cynicism. On an impulse I asked him if he didn’t think that a deeply religious man, or a Christian, might not make a good police officer. I think he was really shocked by the suggestion, and the conversation more or less ended there. I might as well have been a man from Mars. If I had asked him whether a good football player, or a Rotarian, or even a member of the Knights of Columbus, might make a good recruit, I am certain he would have felt more comfortable. This is a measure of where the church is in relation to the police.

We have theologies of death, of medical ethics, of modern literature, of pop psychology. We hold conferences, edit symposia, and carry on learned discussions. But we do not have an adequate theology of public order and safety, of police work, and of the criminal justice systems. The very idea is problematical. And as one reads through the theoretical literature on crime and penology, one finds very shortly that the articles on such topics as the Charles Manson case are thin, pale and anemic; for these discussions are wrapped in the folds of a value-neutral social science lingua franca which makes any realistic or in-depth ethical discussion virtually impossible.

In any case, what each generation must do is to construct an apologia, a defense of the faith which is without shame and based on integrity. Fundamental to this task is the search for an objective ground for value claims -- a well-reasoned argument for external standards which resists the ever-present tendency to reduce ethics to the subjective whims and passions of personal self-interest. We will not -- indeed, cannot -- defend the Christian faith before the prosecution by advocating a condescending criterion of relevance, or by accepting the subjectivity of value. The reality of evil, antisocial acts is too impervious to our wishes for such a state of affairs to continue for long. Above all else, we had better not neglect history. We should be clear, however, that the police, like many of us, often think like men of the apocalypse, assuming they are on the side of the angels against the forces of evil. Such illusions, from any source, may be met only by a countering transcendental or religious argument.

The police as an institution, in the very form and structure of their work, both take on and assume implicit values which should be unmasked and critically discussed -- both for their sake and for ours. To call policemen "pigs" or to stereotype them in other ways is only to express our own lack of civility and common decency which they, quite rightly, keep telling us is a symbol of the social disorder against which they stand as the last defense -- a rather ambiguous position to be in, in any society.

A Central Task for the Theologian

But no organization or individual truly stands alone, for life is constructed in the larger context of the culture. The courts, the prisons, the conflicts of the community affect the policeman and his existence. The church with all its imperfections, inanities and weaknesses may be more central here than we have realized. A theology of police work is no answer, but a religious message that seriously addresses itself to the problems of violence and the need for order and authority within a democratic, legal framework must be, as I see it, a central task for the theologian and for Christian apologetics.

But what is new about this? Augustine wrote his greatest passages dealing with the problem of order in the City of God in response to the fall of Rome, and much of the New Testament itself was written under conditions of persecution. There is more power, hope, faith and even realism left in the Christian tradition than many seem to realize. To trivialize the faith by rushing to the defense of every passing fad from transactional analysis to the frustrations of bourgeois housewives in their search for freedom is to evidence the middle-class sentimentality which is the source of much liberal theology. It will take .a renewed effort at apologetics, in the classical meaning of that term, coupled with considerable grace, even luck, to make Christianity, in its various forms, a viable democratic defense for the future society.


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