Police are entrusted with the power and authority to protect the innocent. That very power provides them with the opportunity to abuse that trust.
Recent events in the United States have drawn to the world’s attention the fact that human beings are incapable of providing perfect law enforcement. That should come as no surprise since, due to our fallen nature, we can do nothing perfectly.
C.S. Lewis never wrote a treatise specifically about law enforcement, but he did refer to it on a number of occasions. This week I thought it might be beneficial to consider a number of his insights. The final quotation relates a specific experience Lewis had with responsive police and a rather unresponsive judiciary.
Lewis had an impressive knack for using familiar images to illustrate biblical principles. In the following example he uses police, an occupation recognized by all, to display the absurdity of the logic of skeptics of Christianity.
If the universe is teeming with life, this, we are told, reduces to absurdity the Christian claim—or what is thought to be the Christian claim—that man is unique, and the Christian doctrine that to this one planet God came down and was incarnate for us men and our salvation.
If, on the other hand, the earth is really unique, then that proves that life is only an accidental by-productd in the universe, and so again disproves our religion. Really, we are hard to please. We treat God as the police treat a man when he is arrested; whatever He does will be used in evidence against Him. (“Dogma and the Universe”)
Let us now consider a few of the principles easily gleaned from Lewis’ writings.
Law Enforcement is a Normal Occupation
In that sense, police are no different than any other member of the community. C.S. Lewis illustrates that truth by including them in a list of “regular” occupations.
Dr. Pittenger would be a more helpful critic if he advised a cure as well as asserting many diseases. How does he himself do such work? What methods, and with what success, does he employ when he is trying to convert the great mass of storekeepers, lawyers, realtors, morticians, policemen and artisans who surround him in his own city? (“Rejoinder to Dr. Pittenger”)
Law Possesses a Vital Function
The State exists simply to promote and to protect the ordinary happiness of human beings in this life. A husband and wife chatting over a fire, a couple of friends having a game of darts in a pub, a man reading a book in his own room or digging in his own garden—that is what the State is there for. And unless they are helping to increase and prolong and protect such moments, all the laws, parliaments, armies, courts, police, economics, etc., are simply a waste of time. (Mere Christianity)
In his essay “Vivisection,” Lewis mentions in passing the role of law enforcement in society. We have assigned to them the responsibility of investigating suspicious behavior to determine whether it conforms to the law of the land. And they do so according to whatever guidelines or restrictions the government (presumably of by and for the people) levies upon them.
In justifying cruelty to animals we put ourselves also on the animal level. We choose the jungle and must abide by our choice. You will notice I have spent no time in discussing what actually goes on in the laboratories. We shall be told, of course, that there is surprisingly little cruelty. That is a question with which, at present, I have nothing to do. We must first decide what should be allowed: after that it is for the police to discover what is already being done.
In Democracies Police are Generally Trustworthy
Lewis acknowledges that there are places where the police are frequently corrupt and perhaps even brutal. But he reminds us that we who live in democratic nations should be grateful for the normal behavior of those who serve in law enforcement.
The decline of ‘religion’ is no doubt a bad thing for the ‘World.’ By it all the things that made England a fairly happy country are, I suppose, endangered: the comparative purity of her public life, the comparative humanity of her police, and the possibility of some mutual respect and kindness between political opponents.
But I am not clear that it makes conversions to Christianity rarer or more difficult: rather the reverse. It makes the choice more unescapable. When the Round Table is broken every man must follow either Galahad or Mordred: middle things are gone. (“The Decline of Religion”)
Is it inappropriate to note how prophetic Lewis’ observation was that the secularization of Western culture would also erode political civility?
“Police States,” by Contrast, are Evil
In his preface to The Screwtape Letters, Lewis divulges where he found some of his images for his infernal milieu.
I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of “Admin.” The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid “dens of crime” that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices. Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the office of a thoroughly nasty business concern.
C.S. Lewis’ father was an attorney. But not just any sort of solicitor. He was a Police Court Solicitor, an important role which had as one of its purposes allowing a person who was arrested on suspicion of a criminal offense to consult with a lawyer while in initial police custody.
Lewis describes in his autobiography how his father regaled him and his brother Warnie with stories about curious police-court happenings. At the same time, Lewis confesses to his father’s struggle to relate to his boys after the loss of his wife when they were still young. Confessing that he frequently found his father’s conversations with his young sons confusing, he writes:
The man who, in his armchair, sometimes appeared not so much incapable of understanding anything as determined to misunderstand everything, was formidable in the police court and, I presume, efficient in his office. He was a humorist, even on occasion, a wit. (Surprised by Joy)
Corrupt Governments Corrupt the Police Force
One of the characteristics of police states is that they have extensive networks of “secret police,” who are often imbued with extraordinary prerogatives. One such malevolent presence plays just such a role in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Searching for Mr. Tumnus, the Pevensie children are discovered by Mr. Beaver. When they inquire of Lucy’s friend, the faun, he says:
“Ah, that’s bad,” said Mr. Beaver, shaking his head. “That’s a very, very bad business. There’s no doubt he was taken off by the police. I got that from a bird who saw it done.”
That explains the note the children had discovered at Mr. Tumnus’ ransacked home.
The former occupant of these premises, the Faun Tumnus, is under arrest and awaiting his trial on a charge of High Treason against her Imperial Majesty Jadis, Queen of Narnia, Chatelaine of Cair Paravel, Empress of the Lone Islands, etc., also of comforting her said Majesty’s enemies, harboring spies and fraternizing with Humans.
signed MAUGRIM, Captain of the Secret Police
LONG LIVE THE QUEEN!
One more passage reveals how quickly the deceitful captain can vacillate between threatening and gracious poses. Edmund has arrived at the Witch’s castle is been confronted by Maugrim.
“If you please, sir,” said Edmund, trembling so that he could hardly speak, “my name is Edmund, and I’m the Son of Adam that Her Majesty met in the wood the other day, and I’ve come to bring her the news that my brother and sisters are now in Narnia—quite close, in the Beavers’ house. She—she wanted to see them.”
“I will tell Her Majesty,” said the Wolf. “Meanwhile, stand still on the threshold, as you value your life.”
Then it vanished into the house. Edmund stood and waited, his fingers aching with cold and his heart pounding in his chest, and presently the gray wolf, Maugrim, the Chief of the Witch’s Secret Police, came bounding back and said, “Come in! Come in! Fortunate favorite of the Queen—or else not so fortunate.”
The Police Can Solve Problems
Yes, the example below comes from his novel The Silver Chair, but it is too good to overlook. Lewis is skilled at teaching through his fiction as well as in his essays.
This excerpt come from one of the Chronicles of Narnia, and Aslan has just returned Jill and Eustace to England, where there was a “corrective” encounter with some school bullies. The headmistress calls the police, and we join the scene . . .
When the police arrived and found no lion, no broken wall, and no convicts, and the Head behaving like a lunatic, there was an inquiry into the whole thing. And in the inquiry all sorts of things about Experiment House came out, and about ten people got expelled.
After that, the Head’s friends saw that the Head was no use as a Head, so they got her made an Inspector to interfere with other Heads. And when they found she wasn’t much good even at that, they got her into Parliament where she lived happily ever after.
Police are Not Soldiers
In the following passage, Lewis shows an astute awareness of the actual role of the Roman soldier in the Jerusalem of Jesus’ day. They were certainly an occupation force, but their role in garrison was not to be “soldiers,” but rather to be “peacekeepers.” They were to maintain law and order, the so-called Pax Romana.
And because the whole difficulty for us is that the natural life has to be, in a sense, ‘killed,’ [Jesus] chose an earthly career which involved the killing of His human desires at every turn—poverty, misunderstanding from His own family, betrayal by one of His intimate friends, being jeered at and manhandled by the Police, and execution by torture. (Mere Christianity)
Lewis does the same thing in his essay “Modern Translations of the Bible,” where he compares the common* nature of the Greek used to write the Scriptures with the Incarnation.
The New Testament in the original Greek is not a work of literary art: it is not written in a solemn, ecclesiastical language . . . It is a sort of `basic’ Greek; a language without roots in the soil, a utilitarian, commercial and administrative language. Does this shock us? It ought not to, except as the Incarnation itself ought to shock us.
The same divine humility which decreed that God should become a baby at a peasant-woman’s breast, and later an arrested field-preacher in the hands of the Roman police, decreed also that He should be preached in a vulgar, prosaic and unliterary literary language. If you can stomach the one, you can stomach the other.
C.S. Lewis’ Experience with the (In)Justice System
In 1957, Lewis wrote an essay** about a personal experience with the British judicial system. I choose to close with this selection because it is quintessential Lewis. He uses a fine critique of the treatment of criminals to also acknowledge his personal sinfulness. In this true story, the police do their job admirably. The judge . . . not so much.
Not long ago some of my young neighbours broke into a little pavilion or bungalow which stands in my garden and stole several objects—curious weapons and an optical instrument. This time the police discovered who they were. As more than one of them had been convicted of similar crimes before, we had high hopes that some adequately deterrent sentence would be given.
But I was warned: “It’ll all be no good if the old woman’s on the bench.” I had, of course, to attend the juvenile court and all fell out pat as the warning had said. The—let us call her—Elderly Lady presided. It was abundantly proved that the crime had been planned and that it was done for gain: some of the swag had already been sold.
The Elderly Lady inflicted a small fine. That is, she punished not the culprits but their parents. But what alarmed me more was her concluding speech to the prisoners. She told them that they must, they really must, give up these “stupid pranks.”
Of course I must not accuse the Elderly Lady of injustice. Justice has been so variously defined. If it means, as [Athenian sophist] Thrasymachus thought, “the interest of the stronger,” she was very just; for she enforced her own will and that of the criminals and they together are incomparably stronger than I.
But if her intention was—and I do not doubt that the road on which such justice is leading us all is paved with good ones—to prevent these boys from growing up into confirmed criminals, I question whether her method was well judged. If they listened to her (we may hope they did not) what they carried away was the conviction that planned robbery for gain would be classified as a “prank”—a childishness which they might be expected to grow out of.
A better way of leading them on, without any sense of frontiers crossed, from mere inconsiderate romping and plundering orchards to burglary, arson, rape and murder, would seem hard to imagine.
This little incident seems to me characteristic of our age. Criminal law increasingly protects the criminal and ceases to protect his victim. One might fear that we were moving towards a Dictatorship of the Criminals or (what is perhaps the same thing) mere anarchy. But that is not my fear; my fear is almost the opposite.
According to the classical political theory of this country we surrendered our right of self-protection to the State on condition that the State would protect us. Roughly, you promised not to stab your daughter’s murderer on the understanding that the State would catch him and hang him.
Of course this was never true as a historical account of the genesis of the State. The power of the group over the individual is by nature unlimited and the individual submits because he has to. The State, under favourable conditions (they have ceased), by defining that power, limits it and gives the individual a little freedom.
And so we see that Lewis shared a concern that has only become accentuated among many today. When the State abuses its prodigious power, and especially when it revises the role of those in law enforcement, transforming them into “enforcers,” we are in dire straits.
Thankfully, that has not yet transpired in most democratic lands. Still, the possibility of such decay has not been eliminated, and wisdom suggests that we remain vigilant should we see things sliding in that direction.
* On the subject of the commonness of the language God uses to speak to us, you may wish to read my column on “Vulgar Christianity.”
** “Delinquents in the Snow” is included in the readily available collection, God in the Dock.
6 thoughts on “C.S. Lewis & the Police”
Always insights here. A constant struggle in as man struggles with his own nature.
So many looking for the Bat Signal calling up a super hero and an easy way out
Yes, our own nature enfleshes a battle between good and ill.
You raise a good question. Where are the superheroes? I believe that many of them wear uniforms… including the members of the armed forces.
So you see them, too? They tend to work so quietly, then step away without any applause.
Seems some need to put on their super decoder glasses to find them. :)
This is an important response to our crisis of confidence in authority. I would add That Hideous Strength as a large scale critique of the police state–this one driven by commercial concerns.
What do you do, then, when the police in a quiet democracy betray their authority? I’m thinking of the black shootings, the aboriginal abuse, the internal corruption. I am a strong, white, relatively well connected citizen. It all changed when I went to Japan. I was tender in a new way. What should the response of Christians be next to those that are targeted by the few that are corrupt or the victims of systematic prejudice?
Good question. I’m a strong law and order guy, as I regard that consistent with God’s plan for human society (i.e. respecting and protecting the rights of all). So I’m inclined to bring down the hammer on all criminals, whether they belong to gangs, or to the police force.
That said, I think that abuse of their authority by police is much rarer than suggested by news coverage (i.e. in terms of statistical analysis). Some matters, such as ethnicity and socio-economic status of suspects do exert an influence on policing (even for law enforcement officers of “minority” ethnicities themselves). These are complex matters, ill suited to two minute news headlines.
In short, I would say that wearing a uniform should never exempt a person from obeying the law. There are quite a few bad “cops” in jails, and more who should be… just like there are lots of “civilian” criminals still on the loose. But–and I’ve had extensive personal experience with both military and civilian police–the vast majority of law enforcement personnel truly are good men and women.
They accept a dangerous and demanding responsibility and, while we must weed out the tares who intentionally do wrong, that does not include those who make mistakes. That is another matter altogether, and I would say in those cases, let him who has never made a mistake, cast the first stone.
Pingback: Legal & Illegal Fonts « Mere Inkling Press