Last night as I sat in an auditorium at Providence St. Vincent hospital on the far left side, in one of the few left-handed desks, listening to a lady from DHS speak about the process of an investigation, I was struck by a horrible sense of déjà vu. It was not the fault of the speaker, who came well-equipped to discuss what it is that DHS seeks to accomplish in a case, namely the protection of the safety of children and often the provision of help to families in great difficulty, many of whom are disproportionally represented by race and class. I was struck by the wide gulf between the speaker’s attitude of being from the government and there to help struggling families, the irony that one of the most popular and resonant lines from former president Ronald Reagan was his poking fun at those who said precisely that. But what struck me the most sadly was the resonance of what the woman had to say with my own life and personal experience, as is often the case.
I must have been about nine or ten years of age or so. At school, we had been instructed on at least a casual level about the child protective services in our state, and I was sure that at least some aspects of the discipline I was raised under would qualify as abuse, whether it was the hours spent in time out, being spanked with a hardwood paddle many times on end, often in great anger, or being dragged by the ear across the street. This is not even to consider the abuse that had gone on when I was a small child that I have written about at some length . Even as a fairly small child, I was aware that something was wrong, and yet even to this day I am struck by the reply of my family to my concerns. There was no attempt made to justify the discipline as reasonable, nor was there an acknowledgement of wrong and an expressed desire to improve matters, but rather the argument that was made was that if I reported on the abusive behavior of my family that I would be taken away from them and never see them again.
In retrospect, that strikes me all the more seriously as a lie, and as a rather devious form of emotional manipulation. After all, the statistics are reasonably clear that this is seldom the case. Considering that roughly half of all calls to child protective services in Oregon end up being investigated, and of these only about thirty percent end up involving in a temporary removal of a child from an abusive household, and of these where removal is undertaken more than half (about 56% according to the stats provided in the CASA training) involve an eventual return to the family of origin once steps have been taken to improve matters. To be sure, this may not have been the case in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s in Florida, where I grew up, but at least compared to the standards of contemporary Oregon, I find it hard to believe that my family was conceding that it was in the worst 7% of all families where abuse was suspected, because even in very bad examples there would be supervised visitation and the opportunity to change things for the better. Was there really no desire on the part of my family to change, to grow, to get better? This is an unpleasant matter to think on, given my own fiercely driven and ambitious and longstanding goals for self-improvement, which must have come from somewhere. I find it hard to believe that my family would have refused the opportunity and resources to improve simply out of stubborn pride and embarrassment, although I fully concede that it would have been humiliating for my family to have its difficulties brought out into a court of law, with the possibility that accusations would have been “founded.”
I have often puzzled over the lack of trust that I inherited from my family and its complicated and multifarious origins. Some members of my family have had, for generations, a sense of paranoid fear about the government coming to take them away and move them to Oklahoma because precisely that threat once hung over some of my ancestors. Other members of my family managed to work for the government and seek to charm authority figures while simultaneously holding to a deep fear of authority exercising it over their own life, particularly in problematic areas. I have often wondered what it would take for me to have a view of authorities, in whatever institution or level of government, that included the faith that they wanted what was best for me, and were willing to provide resources rather than harsh blame and an undying stigma when something was less than ideal. Notwithstanding my own idealistic and devoted service to others, and the favor I have been shown at times by friends, I simply do not trust others to do what is right by me, at least not in the role of authorities. What is perhaps more alarming, I do not know what it would take for me to trust, what threshold of trustworthy behavior would be enough for me to overcome my own intense anxiety and concern, and alarm, over the behavior of authorities, even given my own refusal to abuse such authority as I have possessed in the lives of others. Simply being a good person, albeit a good person with a dark personal history, is not enough to trust in the goodness of others.
But there is more than simply personal history at stake. The question I struggle with so mightily in my own life is one that has terrible consequence. Given my views of eschatology and prophecy, it is my firm belief that the world will be full of deeply broken people when Jesus Christ returns, people broken by their own sins and the harsh judgment that has come over them. If one reads the book of Lamentations, for example, or the accounts in Revelation of people wanting the rocks of mountains to fall on them to protect them from God’s wrath, if one reads the accounts of people in slavery or as refugees from their homeland, and especially if one has a deep and intimate understanding of the effects of trauma on people from painful personal experience, one realizes that we will be precisely in the place of those who are from God’s government and there to help. How will we show ourselves to be trustworthy? What will it take for others to let their guard down enough that they could see within us the loving and gracious people of God who are there to help them and teach them the right way to live, so that they will be slaves to sin no more? Knowing that I have been in the same sort of spot that others will be in makes me empathetic, even in advance, to their sad plight.
Yet again I am taken back to the beginning of troubles. From the same sources I learned suspicion and mistrust of authority, I learned that we are in training to be compassionate authorities to others. Yet how are we supposed to be compassionate as all powerful beings when we are not compassionate as we are? If we cannot have understanding and graciousness with the people around us, with our own children, how are we to be gracious to strangers who have survived judgment for their own sins? If we do not have empathy for our own flesh and blood, how are we to empathize with those who are in terror over us whom we would have the power to obliterate? Perhaps I think and ponder far too much, but it troubles me to think that I would seek training and understanding in how to be a godly authority without having developed a great capacity for trust for those authorities that now exist. How is one to learn how to be a godly authority figure if not from others? Exercising power is one of the more difficult aspects of existence, especially when one exercises a sort of power but does not receive the pay and respect from others that would normally be expected of powerful people, and not something that one can learn sufficiently from books. One needs not only knowledge, but also practice, not only the mind of a godly ruler but also the heart of one as well. One day, God willing, we will be able to say to those in need that we are from God’s government and we’re here to help, but how will we be able to do that if we have not been able to see helpful and service-minded authorities in our own times of trouble?
 See, for example: