HARRISONBURG, Va. — When a person you know well makes a regrettable choice, how do you reconcile what you know about that person with his or her actions? And how do you share what you know about this person without seeming to excuse the action?
These questions confronted Luke Hartman, vice president of enrollment at Eastern Mennonite University, when he saw on national news the video of resource officer Ben Fields flipping over a black student’s desk and tossing her across the classroom in a South Carolina high school.
In an essay published on the Sojourners website and co-written with Sheri Bailey, Hartman grapples with what he calls an “existential crisis,” caught between his knowledge of Fields as a person and his anger at yet another violent mistreatment of a black person. (Hartman is, he says, a “passionate advocate of the Black Lives Matter movement.”)
Hartman was Fields’ basketball coach at Hesston (Kan.) College. They stayed in touch after Fields graduated, moved to South Carolina and joined the law enforcement profession. On vacation, Hartman and his family stopped to visit him.
Video of the incident made Fields, in the judgment of the nation, Hartman writes, “a bigoted, violent, white police officer, his name added to the long and growing list of racist public servants.”
In the essay, Hartman recounts how he reached out to Fields and how former members of the basketball team also connected with their coach.
One of them, Arnold McCrary, responded with puzzlement in an email to Hartman, calling Fields “my brother” and a man “with the biggest heart” who was sensitive to racial inequality.
“I’m trying to understand how to know him as we do and make sense of the video,” McCrary writes.
Regardless of the instigation, physical assault was never an acceptable response in this situation, Hartman says, nor is it the one that God expects of us. He concludes with the hope that Fields will make efforts toward “reconciliation and personal responsibility.”
“We each are on a perpetual search for that path to becoming who God created us to be,” Hartman says. “And sometimes when we fall down or are knocked off the path we must continue to ask: What is the path back?”