A Father's Fiery Rage Against the Cold Machine

"Like" the Patheos Evangelical Page on Facebook to receive today's best commentary on Evangelical issues.

On the day in mid-June on which New Hampshire father Thomas Ball set himself on fire outside a courthouse, he expected to be jailed for the child support he could not pay after two years of joblessness. Ball wrote a long, rambling, anguished letter for the local newspaper, explaining what he had concluded about the family-law system in the ten years before he took his life.

Responses to the letter run the gamut from sympathy to condemnation. Its organizing theme is the distinction between limited, constitutional law and the set of bureaucratic mandates and arbitrary opinions that govern the family-law system. One of his chief concerns is the lack of accountability in the labyrinthine bureaucracy in which a troubled family wanders. The system that decided his fate did not operate by black-letter rules, nor was it bound by standards and constraints he had a right to expect. When the system assumed a supervisory role over his family, he felt less subject to law than to politically motivated caprice.

He's hardly the first father to feel this way. I do not mean to rehash the debate over our courts' treatment of fathers. Instead, I want to consider how well it is working for us, as a society, to have our closest relationships brokered by state bureaucracies. I was profoundly saddened by Thomas Ball's case, because from the very beginning of the story, nothing seemed to have a stronger pull on the hearts and minds of Ball and his wife than the exigencies of the family-law system.

I imagine readers will agree that Ball should not have slapped his daughter, the event that set everything in motion. There was no pattern of domestic abuse on his part—he was acquitted of that charge—but he was certainly in the wrong to slap his child in anger. The more terrible aspect of his case, however, is that while the state intervened with vigor, the two adult citizens involved, Mr. and Mrs. Ball, seemed to have no common vision for their marriage to bolster them against the importunities of government functionaries.

After the slapping incident, Ball's wife was frightened by the advice of a child welfare worker that her daughter would be taken from her if she did not report her husband to the authorities. Once she made the report, the machinery of the state was set in inexorable motion. Communities that rely on federal funds under the Violence Against Women Act are required to implement a mandatory arrest program. Ball was justified, in my view, in regarding this as unfair and excessive. The courts and his wife, for their part, were not unreasonable in finding him recalcitrant and difficult to deal with. It was a miserable situation all around.

Throughout the Balls' ordeal, the ruling paradigm for their situation—the overarching standard for the management of the family—was the family-law system and its triggers. That system is defensive and preventive, designed to catch problems and administer treatment. Perhaps we have become so accustomed to thinking in these terms that we no longer see clearly the possibility of an alternative. And even if we can imagine couples who trust and love each other working through this kind of situation together, the reality is that the ruling paradigm of family law throws up extra obstacles to that. Couples who hope to work without those obstacles have to avoid triggering the family-law paradigm by not making any mistakes.

But people do make mistakes. And for schemes of regulatory prophylaxis, like family law, mistakes are the central thesis. Defining and preventing them is the highest priority. This perspective, inherent to regulation, is incompatible with the traditional view of the family bond as a cushion against the pain of mistakes. The traditional view is positive, redemptive, and aspirational, promising something much better and more rewarding than the mere absence of mistakes. It prizes marriage and family as transcendent moral benefits, rather than as mechanical arrangements subject to expert evaluation and government inspection, like a canning factory or a hybrid car engine.

Tellingly, missing from Ball's letter is a vision for realizing in his own life this positive, aspirational view of the family. He recognizes that the family-law system often defines the priorities of family life against the interests of the people involved. But he has no positive mental model to oppose to the mechanistic, defensive family-law paradigm. We cannot see in his writing a vision of what he would have preferred over the hand dealt him by the courts. And from the fact that he and his wife were unable to withstand the negative incentives of the family-law process, we can deduce that neitherof them had such a vision.