Faith is a complex word. Theologians and scholars have proposed countless definitions. Many people automatically think of religion, credos and belief in a higher power. That it’s something you have or don’t. That’s fine. But that’s not what I’m talking about here.
Instead, I share a fascination with Rev. Richard Gilbert: We wonder what in human nature commits some of us to sacrificial action, sustains us against insurmountable odds, and supports us in desperate times.
Because those are the daily conditions of policing, I’ve learned a lot from peace officers in the quarter of a century I’ve spent with them.
I’ve come to believe the answer is faith. Not faith as a noun that you have or don’t -- or can lose like car keys -- but faith as action, as an evolving courage to encounter an ever-changing world and facts and to persist in fighting the good fight.
I didn’t come up with the idea of faith as a verb. But as I read those who have written before me, this kind of faith as a way of being seemed epitomized by law enforcement officers.
Leadership guru John Maxwell writes about balancing facts and faith, but both are nouns in his work. That might work for corporate CEOs whose facts deal with the bottom line -- money.
What are the facts that police officers face daily?
I think these facts require more than balance; they require a strong verb of action that can prevail against all odds.
L.P. Jacks, the English philosopher, educator and minister who rose to prominence between WWI and WWII, described the kind of active faith I’ve witnessed in policing as, ″[Faith is] not belief in spite of the evidence, but adventure in scorn of consequences.″
As the Rev. Gilbert observed, this kind of faith is a conviction that life is worth giving all we have to it -- unconditionally. This faith is not something we possess; it’s something we are when we are at our best. We go on even when we don’t know the meaning of it all, even when we understand we’re not in control of the results -- because it’s an adventure worth the consequences.
What makes the adventure worth it? Ask the Spartans at the battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. when 300 of them faced an invading army of Persians numbering in the millions. A Spartan officer, Dienekes, was told on the eve of battle that the Persian archers were so numerous that when they fired their volleys the mass of arrows blocked out the sun. He remarked with a laugh, ″Good, then we’ll have our battle in the shade.″ [Herodotus, The Histories ]
On day five of the battle, the Persian King, certain of the outcome, sent word to the Spartan King, Leonidas, that he would spare the lives of his remaining men and give them their freedom. This was unheard of. In those days, the side that lost died or became slaves of the side that won.
There was just one condition. The Spartans must lay down their arms. Leonidas gave a two-word response that is now engraved on a monument at the site: “Molon Lave.” It means, “Come and get them.” The Spartans held on for two more days, fighting to the last man. Their valor lives on centuries later.
What faithing fueled their action? Something they valued more than the certain facts of life and freedom. It’s the same faithing that fuels peace officers:
The faith to keep fighting the good fight isn’t conditioned on winning, on life being fair, on being supported or nurtured. It’s a covenant to show up every day and give the effort all you’ve got.
According to Patrick O’Hare, the Latin word for faith is also a form of the verb ″I believe,″ which can be interpreted as ″to give one’s heart.″ That’s what police officers do every day. They go to work knowing they may be called upon to show the greatest love of all.
John 15:13 -- Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.
Peace officers are prepared to make this sacrifice for strangers.
A police officer’s faith is not an estate to be attained. It is a way of being and acting in the world. It was captured for me in a final dispatch call sounded over police and fire radios, ″Lincoln Two, Lincoln Two. Last call for Lieutenant Shuhandler, last call for Lieutenant Shuhandler. Rest in peace, sir. We’ve got it from here.″
We’ve got it from here. They faith on, even as they lay one of their own to rest.
And in the nearby city of Phoenix, younger officers are facing layoffs in a budget crisis. I have to wonder, along with the reporter talking to them, how many people would walk through a darkened door where someone is hiding with a gun knowing they might be laid off in a month?
After the funeral and interviews were done, the reporter wrote of these young officers, ″Each planned to spend time [that day] thinking about Shuhandler. … And each had the same one-word answer when I asked if the possibility of being laid off altered the way they approached police work: No.″
Police work requires a special faithing. It’s an active giving of one’s heart. It’s a covenant to show up every day ready and willing to pay the greatest price. I’m not up to it. But the community of policing has inspired me to try to grow my own faith. It has me asking myself every day:
And in the light of Lt. Shuhandler, and those young officers, it has me trying to be a better person.
Additional Reading:Serve and Protect Then Get Laid Off?