Wednesday, February 18, 2015

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility (Talk given at the induction of newest members of Boise Police Department)

Note: I gave this talk to the newest members of the Boise Police Department at the invitation of Police Chief Bill Bones.  The setting was the Idaho Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial.  Other speakers were Chief Bones, who gave a powerful charge to his department, and Steve Martin, the director of the LGBTQ Pride Foundation.

Thank you, Chief Bones.

I am honored to be present as we celebrate the first class of police officers to be inducted under your tenure. 

It is a special privilege for me to be present with you in this place, which I take as holy ground.  This Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial is at the heart of our city—and not just geographically.  For our newest policemen and women to begin their service here is a remarkable and powerful thing.  I pray that the words of the courageous people of all races, creeds, nationalities, backgrounds, and origins will always be at the heart of your own mission as civil servants, as you strive to secure the safety and the general welfare of all of Boise’s residents.

I’d like to briefly share with you two charges today.  I offer them from a dual perspective, as a rabbi and as a father.

My first charge is straight off a poster that hangs on my son’s bedroom wall.  Its wisdom comes from Stan Lee, the creator of Spiderman.  Like most of the comic artists who invented our modern pantheon of superheroes, Mr. Lee is a Jew who drew on the teachings of my tradition. 

He reminds us: With great power, comes great responsibility.   

My friends, this is both your burden and your blessing.  For you to be able to protect us, we, the citizens, vest you with great power.  I urge you, now and always, to never forget from whence that power comes and why it is given to you.  I pray that you never use your badge and your force of arms to bully.  May your always remember that they are bestowed upon you by the people that you serve so that you can ably protect the vulnerable and make our community a kinder and more peaceful place to live.

This brings me to my second charge, which is really just a corollary of the first.

Once, while gazing at this poster on his wall, my son Jonah asked me, “Dad, are you afraid of bad guys?”

I told him, then, what I reiterate to you: that while there are, on rare occasions, real bad guys in this world, that’s not what we usually encounter.  What we see, far more often, are decent people who sometimes do bad things.

In the work that you do, you will see a lot of good people doing bad things.  And given the incredible stress that you will labor under, it can be all too easy to harden yourself and start to see your calling as an endless effort to contain the bad guys.  I pray that you never give reign to this impulse to see those you struggle against as evil.  Remember that even the people you are called to stop and contain and sometimes arrest are mostly not bad guys but decent people doing indecent things—even when they are acting very badly, indeed.  Deal with them justly and be firm as you must in order to do your duty—but do not write them off them as evil.  Do not let the hardships you will surely face wear away your compassion and empathy.  Do not harden your hearts.  For when you stop thinking of the people that you patrol—even the ones acting out in insidious and ugly ways—as fully human, then you lose your own soul.

With great power comes great responsibility. 

And with great responsibility comes the tremendous challenge of maintaining your humanity, your empathy and your compassion even when it seems undeserved.

May you serve and protect us all. 

And I thank you, with all of my heart, for your commitment to doing just that.

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