Honor and Restraint

130313-M-RR352-026During my final year at Stanford, our newly appointed police chief died suddenly and without warning. Chief Marvin Moore was the first African American to hold the position. I found the officers devastated when I went to visit the department and offered whatever help I could. It had been their good fortune that they never lost a serving officer in or out of the line of duty for as long as anyone could remember.

I gathered the uniformed women and men in a circle at their favorite tree, invited them to share memories and prayers, and embraced each of them. One of the officers sheepishly asked me whether I would give him a proper officer’s funeral in Memorial Church. I replied yes without hesitation, knowing it was against the rules.

You see, Jane Stanford was so deeply mired in her Victorian sensibilities that even though she constructed the church as a memorial to her late husband Leland, just as the university itself stands as a memorial to their son, Leland, Jr, she had decreed that nothing so vile as a corpse could desecrate that sacred space. Coming from a Navy family myself and remembering full well the honor accorded those who risk their lives in service to country and community—the flag draped coffin, the honor guard, the folding of the flag and presentation to the next of kin—I understood why the officer made his request. As Harvard’s storied minister, Peter Gomes, used to quip, “It is simply how things are done.”

In spite my supervisor’s reservations, then, and in violation of the charter I made the easy decision to do things “how they are done.” (It helped to have submitted my resignation already in favor of further graduate study.) It felt like the right decision as I intoned the Psalm and led the unveiled coffin out of the church past the 1500 mourners who showed up to pay their last respects.

Make no mistake, I am no fan of unrestrained state power. The sight of guns still unnerves me having lived with the scars of community and domestic gun violence, sometimes fatal, for a lifetime. I have a hard time justifying many of the wars in the latter half of the twentieth century and beyond, declared or undeclared. Yet, over time, I have come to acknowledge the tragic nature of humanity—that sometimes only force can restrain violence against the innocent. Given the delicate balance and incredible discipline required to use force responsibly I am at once an unflinching advocate of gun control for civilians and a man who holds police officers and soldiers in high esteem.

This is all the more reason that when I find myself at the mercy of an officer who violates public trust and my dignity by abusing his power—even more when I witness it—I am filled with blinding rage.

That esteem is also why I felt a gnawing sense of guilt when I started my last post on the carnage in Baton Rouge, LA, Falcon Heights, MN and Dallas, TX with the words, “My most charitable response is restraint.”

I realize now my guilt was unwarranted. After all, restraint is an honorable trait. Restraint is at the heart of the controversy. Those who prefer a neat and tidy existence want peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters to shut up and go home, even if they agree with the righteousness of their cause. Police officers are horrified that a well-trained soldier mowed down several of their own, even as they themselves acknowledge the failings and biases of policing across the country and while some, surreptitiously, share his and my sense of outrage. Demonstrators, from the most docile to the most violent, take to the streets precisely because too many who are authorized by the state to use force fail to act with restraint when encountering communities of color.

So here we are, poised to do violence to one another even as we demand each other to honor us—our very lives—with restraint. With the duly noted exception of those who love anarchy or want to maintain privilege and power for the few at all costs, the rest of us, people of genuine  good will simply want others to follow the golden rule: Honor others as you would have them honor you. In these days of rage and grief, restraint is the highest expression of love of which many are capable. For those who have been entrusted with the use of force, proper restraint is what justice looks like.

The kumbaya moment has not appeared. Restraint will have to do. Everyone has the moral obligation to decide for themselves what that means.  Give time a chance to bring deeper insight and some small measure of healing.

We’ve seen the alternative.  It isn’t pretty.

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About D. Maurice Charles

Maurice is an Episcopal priest and historian of Christianity who reflects on religion and violence, having received his M.Div. and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. Most of his ministry has focused on higher education, having previously served as Associate Dean for Religious Life at Stanford University. In 2015 he was appointed Chaplain of the Colleges and Assistant Professor of Religious Studies (by courtesy) at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, NY. Maurice contributes to this blog with his Chicago friends in the hope that personal reflection and heartfelt discussion lead to building beloved community.