Broward County Tightrope

by Andrew Forrest

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.

The Problem

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.)


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Chad Russell Bradley February 26, 2018 - 3:57 pm

The perspective given here raises another question:

Is it a sin to fail at one’s job?
Is failing, failing to save people, or is failing, failing to save your own life? We find that greater love hath man than this, to lay down his life for another. Maybe, just maybe, the officer is in over his head, and didn’t expect he would have to save anyone.

Andrew Forrest February 26, 2018 - 4:55 pm


You raise a good point: I probably muddied the waters a bit by talking about sin in the post.

Yes, I think it might be fair to say the guy was in over his head, but that raises the very issue: just because he made a mistake, doesn’t meant that it’s okay–after all, his failure might have had life and death consequences. It’s not that he just was late to turn in his TPS reports, you know?

Greer February 26, 2018 - 4:39 pm

Andrew, great points! Have you read the book The Road to Character by David Brooks? The way we as society respond to moral questions like these has been so shaped by the cultural viewpoints at the time. Are

Andrew Forrest February 26, 2018 - 4:56 pm

I have on my shelf a signed copy from a talk David Brooks gave…but I’ve not read it!

RA February 26, 2018 - 5:32 pm

I can assure you that no public judgment will haunt Deputy Peterson like the judgement and shame he casts on himself for the rest of his life. He has some dark days of guilt and self-doubt ahead, and for that I am terribly sorry for him. I pray that he gets the ministry and community that he needs in order to forgive himself. I truly worry about his life.

I am an Option B guy all the way. My hope is that we as a society can maintain a high moral standard and be rich with grace for each other in recognizing that we are fallen people (we are already “marked forever as violators”). Option A feels like taking the easy road with the entitled expectation that grace will abound. Extending grace to someone is not saying “it’s fine”. If it were fine, then would grace even be required? In this sense, grace does not exist without the presence of failure. In the same way tolerance does not exist without the presence of difference. And light does not exist without the presence of darkness.

As for the situation with Deputy Peterson, the general public will never know what it is like to carry a firearm in service to others (thanks be to God for that). Forget laying down one’s life for a friend – how many of us even lay down our calendars for a friend? There are far fewer among us than we would like to think who would run daringly into a building alone to face certain injury or death solely for the benefit of strangers. “But he swore an oath!” True. Let he who has made good on all of the oaths in his life cast the first stone I guess. It is absolutely tragic that he and others chose not to enter the building while those children were under fire. I would never say to them “It’s ok, you did your best”. It’s not ok, and it never should be. And they probably didn’t do their best. But as long as there is sin in the world, there could always be a chance that we are asked to lay down our lives for others. I pray that when the time comes for each of us to step into the arena, that we do what we wish would do; and that those who are not in the arena are merciful if we do not perform to their liking, even if they are correct.

Andrew Forrest February 26, 2018 - 5:51 pm

Yes, I worry about the man, too. This is EXACTLY the kind of situation in which a church needs to reach out to him, whether he’s a religious or faithful guy or not.

One quibble: I’m not sure that light requires darkness. I wonder if light is substantial in itself, whereas darkness is nothing. Would it be better to say, darkness requires light?

I actually had a point in the post about military service, but I took it out as not being essential to my point. Here’s the substance of what I deleted: Even those of us who *have* been in life and death situations as soldiers, etc., didn’t have to worry that the entire world would learn about our failures. We ourselves might know if we failed our buddies, but I suspect very often almost no one else would know. All the more reason to judge not, lest we be judged.

This guy is in a circumstance that’s almost unique in the history of the world–literally billions of people know about his failures. We need to pray for him.

RA February 26, 2018 - 7:33 pm

Yes. In ?On Killing?, Dave Grossman writes about the number of soldiers who never fired a shot while on the front lines during WWII. Fortunately those young men did not have millions of armchair tacticians publicly grading their paper after each battle.

Andrew Forrest February 27, 2018 - 7:54 pm

I watched “Saving Private Ryan” with some kids from my youth group when it came out, and I remember the disgust with which the people around me reacted to the scene where the new guy watches, paralyzed with terror in the closet, as his comrade fights a German hand to hand and is slowly killed by the German’s knife. Even at the time, I felt that it is awfully easy to act like you’d do the right and brave thing when you have the luxury of not being in the situation that requires action.

Christina March 2, 2018 - 11:00 pm

I know I’m late to the conversation, but I had to add my two cents worth. I feel very strongly the Monday morning quarter backs that hide behind their keyboards have greatly added to the inaction of law enforcement officers in general (I can’t speak specifically to this case). Officers are terrified of being crucified in the media if they do anything wrong and I have no doubt people will be injured or killed because of it. I am very thankful to have completed 27 years of law enforcement without being in a deadly force situation, which immediately puts us all under a microscope. For those that are so quick to judge and think they could do better I ask them to walk a block in our shoes – it wouldn’t take a mile. We all hope and think we will do the right thing but one never knows until faced with that situation. Thanks again, Andrew, for another thought provoking post.


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