“The issue is now quite clear. It is between light and darkness and every one must choose his side.” G. K. Chesterton

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Life Lessons from J. Edgar Hoover

Okay, so this is a very different topic than I've done before.  But last week Susan was given an assignment by a client to write a 8000 word biography of J. Edgar Hoover, the legendary director of the FBI.  Because I consider myself something of an expert on Hoover and the FBI (thanks to my day job at the National Archives), I gave her quite a bit of help,  Okay, a lot of help.  Maybe a little more help than she wanted.  But anyway, talking about Hoover and reading about him again got me to thinking about all the things Hoover's life and character can teach us.

Certainly there are few figures of 20th Century American history who are more controversial than J. Edgar Hoover.  To many he was and remains America's crime fighter, defending America against bank robbers, spies, and subversives who wanted to destroy the American way of life.  To others, he was a man with a huge ego who abused his power for his own ends, trampled on the civil liberties of anyone he did not like, and was eaten up by his own hatreds.  (I will leave aside the rumors concerning cross-dressing and sexual orientation; this is a family blog). But if you look at his life objectively, there was both good and bad in Hoover.  He was not a legend or a mythical figure; he was in many ways an ordinary man, a sinner as we all are, who had faults and failings, demons he struggled with.  He was not a saint; he was not even a Catholic (he was a longtime Presbyterian).  But I believe we can learn things from ordinary people that we can apply to our life as Christians. From the things Hoover did, the good and bad, we can learn some things to help us sinners along the path towards holiness.

1. It's not about you.  Hoover often said, "One man did not build the Bureau; but one man can bring it down."  While he used this to justify the strict discipline that he used to manage the Bureau's agents (who could be exiled to Butte, Montana for any infraction), Hoover really did not believe his own statement.  To Hoover, the FBI was his creation; everything about it, and every action by its employees reflected on him.  Criticisms of the actions of the Bureau were personal affronts; in a famous incident, Hoover referred to Martin Luther King, Jr. as a liar when the Civil Rights leader questioned the actions of the FBI in the South during the 1960s.  To carefully control the Bureau's image--and by extension, his image--he employed a full time publicity department charged with, among other things, working with movie and television producers to make sure Bureau operations were portrayed in the most flattering light.  Hoover spent as much time crafting his image as he did overseeing the day to day operations of the Bureau.  In the end, however, the image did not survive long after his death.  

When we engage in any kind of work in the Church, we need to keep in mind that whatever program we organize, class we teach, bible study we lead, they are not about us.  We are merely instruments in the hands of our Lord.  The glory is not ours; it's God's.  When we spend time making sure everyone knows what we've done, and how much work we've put into something, then we're doing so to gratify our own ego.  What we're building is on shifting sands, rather than the solid rock of Christ.
2.  Do not treat your critics as personal enemies.  Hoover got his start by overseeing raids conducted in 1919-1920 against suspected radicals.  There were many critics of this policy; Hoover took this criticism personally.  He responded by investigating his critics an looking for anything that would tie them to radicals.  He continued this pattern as FBI Director; it is a fact that he gathered information, often personal, about people he considered his enemies. 
As Christians, especially today, we are going to encounter criticism for our beliefs and our actions.  We make a very serious mistake if we see people who criticize us as our personal enemies.  Worse, we make a mistake if we treat them as our personal enemies.  We are commanded by our Lord to love our enemies and do good to those who mistreat us.  We should see criticism as a God-given opportunity to think about our beliefs, learn more about them, and prepare ourselves to defend them.  Then, we should approach our critics and try to dialogue with them, rather than trying to silence them.  If we do this, then we stand a good chance of winning our critics to our side.
3.   If you believe your ends are just, then the means you use must be just, too.  Hoover sincerely believed that America after World War II was threatened by Communist subversives.  He spent considerable time and energy trying to wake the American people to this threat.  His agents kept tabs on Communist groups and individuals; many were spies for the Soviet Union, but most were just ordinary misguided citizens.  But Hoover believed that the threat was so grave, he was justified in using any means at his disposal.  So he authorized wiretaps without warrants; break-ins; mail openings; going through people's trash; even writing fake letters that cast aspersions on people's character.  The details came out after his death, and resulted in disgrace for many agents of the FBI who carried out his orders.  
We have many challenges in our country, and as Christians face many evils.  One of the greatest evils is abortion.  Working to end this grave crime against God is certainly just.  But we are not justified when we threaten Abortionists or bomb clinics; both violate God's law just as much as abortion does.  People who do those things do nothing but bring the hundreds of thousands of dedicated sidewalk counselors, pregnancy center volunteers into disrepute.
4.  Sin kills the good we do.  Today, Hoover is known for the bad things he did.  But he did much good too.  His greatest accomplishment was taking a small backwater bureau of the Justice Department and building it into the premier national law enforcement agency in the world.  He is responsible for the widespread adoption of scientific methods in police work; the FBI laboratory was the first of its kind in the United States, and remains one of the best in the world.  But those aren't the things people remember about him.
No matter how much good we do, our sins have the power to destroy it all.  If we are in unrepentant and unconfessed sin, then any good we try to do is based on a lie. Imagine trying to tell your son about the evils of internet pornography when you're engaging in it yourself;  or advising your daughter not to wear revealing clothing when you're flirting with a man you work with.  It's impossible for your words to have any real effectiveness.  Even small sins can erode our good works.  That is why frequenting the sacrament of Confession is so important; it is an opportunity to relieve ourselves of our sinful thoughts and actions before they have a chance to do damage to ourselves and all that we are trying to do.
5.  Nothing we do on earth lasts.   Now some might say I'm wrong about this one.  Hoover is dead, but the FBI is still going strong.  Yes, that's true, and I admit it's kind of difficult to make this point from Hoover's life.  But the FBI today is not the organization that Hoover built; it has a much different character.  That did not outlive him; it changed, keeping the form but being different in its essence.
This is a hard lesson, but one Jesus can help us with.  He tells us in the Sermon on the Mount that we should build up treasure in heaven  instead of treasure here on earth.  Of earthly treasures, he says moths can eat at it and rust can damage it; but heavenly treasure is unchanged, is permanent.  It is in the nature of earthly things to change.  Our bodies grow and age; we get hair, then decades later loose it; we could run and play for hours when children, now we fall asleep on the couch at 8:00.  As parents, our children are constantly changing; we put so much energy into making them the kind of people we want them to be, then they do off and change into someone else who, while looking like our child, is now a new and different person.  Jesus is telling us that our efforts here on earth to build up "treasures", be they money, fame, position, an organization, children, a spouse, a job, etc., is ultimately futile because it never lasts.  The only permanent treasure is in heaven.  Our energy should be directed there.

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