Is It Big Brother or God Who Is Watching?

December 2, 2014

The multi-layered tragedy of Ferguson, Missouri, has caused some soul-searching in America. It is not the first such debacle to do so, nor will it, sadly, be the last. We seem to be a particularly blind and stiff-necked people when it comes to facing our racial history, cultural misunderstandings, and impoverished view of humanity. My prayer is that compassion and understanding would overtake anger, frustration, injustice, and violence. It will take a transforming act of God to help us become much better listeners, more patient citizens, and seekers of truth and justice.

The soul-searching that is necessary, however, must get far deeper into my heart and my soul than conviction over one attention-getting news story.

Yesterday, President Obama requested $75M to buy 50,000 more body-worn cameras for local law enforcement. A report from the Justice Department, which had been in the works before the Ferguson shooting, said there’s evidence both police and civilians behave better when they know there are cameras around. The aim is to rebuild trust between police departments and communities of color. You can read the full AP article here.

What struck me about this story was the statement that “people behave better when they know there are cameras around.” In other words, people make different choices, restrain their basest impulses, and otherwise demonstrate greater self-control if they know they are being observed by Big Brother. TV crime shows make much of the power of surveillance to catch law-breakers or even disprove false testimony.

What is very sad to me is what body cameras replace. While crime has always been a problem—that one started in the Garden, no news there—the escalation of violence in our country occurs at a time when the public acknowledgment of God’s powerful presence is muted. In my lifetime, there has been a huge shift in perception. It used to be quite common for a parent to say to a child, “Even when I am not there, God is watching you.”

Our children experience this discipline first as “Mom is watching you.” One of my darling daughters was tempted by her junior high friends to leave campus and have lunch at the Burger King half a mile away. Upon her initial protest, they said, “Oh no, your mom never has to find out.” Yes, we lived in a fairly small community of 17,000 people, and yes, she was a PK; but I loved it when she reported to me later that she insisted to her friends, “No, I can’t do that. I don’t know how she does it, but my mom always finds out.” [Score!]

The fact is, God always finds out, too. That is both a threat and a wonderful and great promise of our faith. It is a threat only if you or I are guilty of immoral premeditation, like I was on a traffic-heavy day. I was tempted to take the not-yet-open freeway fly-by to avoid congestion in the soon-to-be replaced interchange. At the very last second, I decided not to do that, and you can imagine my guilty relief when I saw a California Highway Patrol car parked at the end of that fly-by just waiting for the next impatient scofflaw to attempt a pass. But it wasn’t I, because my well-formed conscience (a corollary to “God watching”) was in full operation that day.

In this shameless generation, the statement “God is watching” carries no weight or threat. But cameras on light-posts do; cameras affixed to a police officer’s chest or dashboard do; cameras in hallways and doorways do. If we had not lost so much moral ground built upon a Judeo-Christian foundation (as basic as the Ten Commandments), cameras would not have replaced the Seeing Eye of our Almighty God.

God is watching for our protection, but you can be sure that God sees our rebellion and knows our callous hearts as well. Whether or not we participate in visible violence, God knows our hearts that harbor prejudice or any number of other sins. Knowing this should propel us to the floor in remorse, confession, and repentance before the One who is able to change us from the inside out. Knowing this should drive us to our knees and plead for the Spirit of God to work behavioral miracles in us. Knowing this should transform us into trustworthy people, law-abiding citizens, and loving neighbors.

            Search me, O God, and know my heart;
                        test me and know my thoughts.
            See if there is any wicked way in me,
                        and lead me in the way everlasting. (Psalm 139:23f)

And then, we won’t need any more body cameras or live-streaming surveillance.



2 Responses to “Is It Big Brother or God Who Is Watching?”

  1. Jodie Says:

    Much of History would have been written differently had there been cameras rolling at the time.

    Starting at least in the 60s we can see the active influence and interaction of the camera with historical events. For example the images of Russian ships carrying missiles to Cuba led to the Cuban missile crisis. During the civil rights movement, folks watching the police letting loose dogs and water canons on black protestors changed public opinion of the movement. The end of the Klan is tied to members of the Klan caught on video committing murder in broad daylight. The outcome of the VietNam War was affected by images of American soldiers burning down villages “in order to save them”, and a South Vietnamese general executing a VC prisoner up close and personal.

    I think some people call it “post-modernity”, but it is a common problem described in Science since at least the beginning of the 20th Century: That reality itself changes, if it “knows” it is being “watched”.

    I like your spin. How would we behave differently, if we “knew” God was watching? I think that knowledge has indeed affected human history, at times in very important and positive ways. I have at times advocated leaving a chair empty in Church meetings, and telling people that it’s not empty: Jesus is sitting in that chair. If folks think He is really watching, they behave quite differently than if they don’t think about it.

    I think it is the real meaning of the term “the Fear of God”. And it really is the beginning of all Wisdom.

  2. In answer to your question in your title: both.

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