How should we treat that school cop from Florida? I’m going to tell you at the outset that I don’t know how to answer the question that I’m going to raise in this post, but I think it’s important to raise it anyway. No doubt you’ve heard that the school resource officer assigned to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida remained outside during the massacre on February 14. No one knows what might have happened if the school cop had entered the building and confronted the killer in the midst of his rampage, but we do know what did happen: the killer walked out of the school unharmed, leaving 17 corpses behind him.
I don’t know what I would have done if I were the school cop that day, and neither do you: it was literally a life-and-death moment, and we should judge not lest we be judged. On the other hand, it was that officer’s job to protect the school, and he clearly failed in his duty. As a result, this man is internationally notorious as a failure, and that judgment will stalk him the rest of his life. All of this raises a question I’ve thought a lot about:
How do we maintain clear moral standards while at the same time offering grace to the people who violate those standards? Put another way, How do we hate the sin and love the sinner?
Almost always, when we think about the above question, we’re talking about sexual ethics. But this case shows that the question is much broader than that.
Option A–Be Lax With the Standards
Let’s say we decide that it’s too high a standard to expect our cops to risk their own lives on behalf of the public. The inevitable result of that decision would be fewer cops who risk their lives on behalf of the public. The expectations we set matter. If we relax our standards, behavior would follow.
Take marriage and divorce: when a culture frowns upon divorce, there are fewer divorces. (I’m not saying that the marriages that persist are good marriages, or even if social condemnation of divorce is a good thing–I’m just making the obvious point that our standards matter.) Today, divorce has much less social stigma than it did in previous generations, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that we have more divorces than in previous generations.
A culture’s standards and expectations affect the behavior of the people in that culture.
Option B–Be Rigid With the Standards
Instead of relaxing our standards, we could choose to vigilantly maintain them. We could decide, for example, that we do expect our cops to risk their own lives on behalf of the public, no matter what. Anyone who refused to do so, we would socially shame and professionally reprimand. When it comes to marriage, we could decide that our culture values fidelity highly, and we could have the cultural guardrails and legal safeguards in place to make divorce undesirable and difficult.
Each option poses a problem, however:
Option A will mean that we’ll get more of the behaviors that we don’t want;
but, human nature being what it is…
Option B will mean that those who violate the standards will be marked forever as violators.
But again, if we say to the sinners in Option B–“It’s really okay. Don’t feel bad about it.”–we are in danger of making Option A a reality.
I confront this problem all the time. If I don’t preach strongly in favor of marriage and against divorce, for example, it might seem as if marital fidelity doesn’t matter that much. But, if I do hit that topic hard, it might be the case that I am heaping shame on people who are already covered in it.
Imagine if the school cop from Parkland were in your church: if you immediately said to him, “It’s fine” you’d be saying something that isn’t true: it’s NOT fine. But, on the other hand, if you didn’t extend grace to him, you’d be lying, too, since Jesus forgives sinners.
It’s a tightrope.
I think sometimes that this tightrope–balancing between hating the sin and loving the sinner–is actually impossible for us. Fortunately, it is possible for God, who both hates sin and loves sinners at the same time. What’s difficult to know is how we practically live out the mysterious grace of God in the world.
So, how do we maintain clear moral standards while at the same time offering grace to the people who violate those standards?
I don’t think there is a quick and easy formula. I think this requires wisdom and prayer.
(And, I think we should add the school resource officer from Parkland to the prayers we are already praying for the grieving families.)