When “Public Service” Gets Crushed

Everybody is haunted by the images of this week.
The Nazi shirts…the Confederate flag…the man with zip ties in military gear…the wild-eyed looks of these insurrectionists.

But I’ve been deeply stirred by two images.
One, of this Capitol police officer being crushed.
The other, of Representative Andy Kim cleaning up the trash.

I know that this is a hard year to defend police in any way. I know…there are deep questions to be asked about the Capitol Police. (As somebody who once myself was arrested by them…I have a few questions about HOW the insurrectionists got in…)

But take a look at this officer being crushed. Whatever you think of law enforcement as a whole, they are —first and foremost— public servants.
And a PART of what’s being CRUSHED in our world today is the whole idea of PUBLIC SERVICE itself.

The Trump era is the pinnacle of a fifty-year era of diminishment and demoralization those who serve the public.
From the time of Reagan onward, major portions of the Republican Party have told us that “government is the problem.” That concept has been internalized into a political strategy of literally doing nothing. If government is the “problem,” then the “solution” is for government to do as little as possible…or, as Grover Norquist once famously said…get it small enough to drown in the bathtub.

Think about that metaphor for a moment.

If you drowned the government, who gets drowned?

Members of Congress, sure. (I’m sure Norquist meant them…)
But also dog catchers and garbage collectors in your neighborhood.
Clerks, adminstrators and government scientists.
Yes, your local police too.
Judges, baliffs, court reporters.
Cashiers at the DMV.
Teachers and principals and social workers.
Public health workers.
Folks who keep the water on.

They drown….because the government is always US.

“The government” is not some strange, other-wordly cabal of mystically all-powerful humans.
WE are the government.
The “government” is real human beings.

Those doors that cop was defending were the doors to “The People’s House.”
And, somehow, things have gotten so twisted-up that some of our citizens believe they were called to take it by force.

Eventually, if you internalize the message of drowning government-workers in a bathtub deeply enough, it leads directly to a crushed cop and wild-eye insurrectionists hunting Nancy Pelosi and Mike Pence with zip ties.

Since I am married to an elected public official, I spend far more time meditating on these issue than the average preacher. I see the dangers they face, first hand. Not every day, but some days, I worry about my wife’s safety has she leaves the house.
We’ve dealt with harassment and stalkers, physical and virtual. We don’t talk about those moments, publicly, very much. But pictures like that crushed cop bring them up. Understand, what we face is nothing like other public servants face on a daily basis. But, I see it.

So, today, I am not absolving all police, or inviting you to excuse inaction or malfeasance on the part of any public official. We should hold them accountable…all public officials.

We should also realize that there is a literal and spiritual cost to “otherizing” government workers as sub-human.
And we have all done that, far more than we should.

Many government workers see what they do to “serve the public” as a “calling.”
I’m blessed to get to see them here in Dallas, first hand. We are blessed to personally know many city and county officials here…elected, appointed, and hired. I see how seriously they take their jobs, and their dedication is a constant source of inspiration to me.

I see the crap they put up with, from “We The People.” How we all —regardless of party— tend to complain about them and very rarely praise them for anything. We are quick to critize them (I am too, understand. First among the hypocrites, am I…).
But we don’t see them doing what Rep. Andy Kim is doing in this second photograph.

Does this second photo move you?
Of course it does. It’s servant-leadership at its best.

But friends, you need to understand that every day there are hundreds of thousands of unsung Andy Kim’s, always picking up the trash (some, literally) that “We The People” leave.
They serve us.

We must acknowlege that over these past fifty years, a basis respect for our institutions at all levels has faded.
BUT! We must admit that it has not just magically waned from weariness or cynicism. That fading respect for institutions has been NURSED, curated and encouraged…most explicitly by some portions of the Republican Party, but internalized by us all.

“Government is your problem,” is a 50-year mantra of the Republican Party.

Eventually, that gets you a government of no ideas, and no desire to do anything except gum up the works so that nothing is ever accomplished.
Eventually, that means enough folks say “Why not elect the narcissistic businessman as President…what have you got to lose?”
Eventually, that gets you people who are so frustrated and angry (on all sides) that their government doesn’t do more for them.
Eventually, that gets you a public that has a *profoundy cynical* view of public service.
Eventually, that gets you a crazed, radical fringe who will believe almost any conspiracy theory, mimic the narcissistic delusions of their leader, and decide they can just take over Congress if they feel like it…and murder or arrest anybody who gets in their way.

That is what 50 years of this message gets us.

If we’re going to move to a new place, some new found respect for all those who serve us —even as we we still hold them accountable— will have to be a part of the solution. If not, we are in for not just more crushed officers, but more “crushed” DMV clerks and dog catchers too.

It’s time for us to re-center our sense of not only accountability, but also respect, for all who serve us in the institution we call “the government.”

Leave a comment