Of life in the still-Christian South (a retired cleric’s occasional reflections)…

On Labor Day and the letter and the spirit of the law

About a mile from my home, on one of the main thoroughfares that runs through Spartanburg and, east and west, beyond, is a lawyer’s office. The building, an attractive cottage, nestled in a stand of mostly crepe myrtle trees and well-manicured shrubbery, sits 50 yards from the road. Zipping by, one might not notice it, save for the conspicuous curbside sign advertising the attorney’s name and contact information and, for me, more…most prominently, in bright flashing crimson neon, a scripture citation. This past week, Isaiah 43.2: When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. The “I” of the Isaian prophetic reference, of course, is God.

I don’t know the attorney or his intent in publicizing biblical references. Nevertheless, allowing my imagination free rein to run, I assume that it’s an expression of his scripture-rooted beliefs and values[1] and that it may prove (has proven?) a boon to his business, attracting clients who ascribe to faith-based commerce, in this case, legal services.

As I muse about this, I recall the counsel of a dear friend, Woodley Beal Osborne, a very fine person and lawyer. He once said to me, “Paul, there’s a reason it’s called law school and not justice school.” Yes, there’s a difference, sometimes, I think, vast between the law as a system of behavioral regulatory rules established and enforced by society and government (the fitting and fruitful application of which can be governable by time and place, person and circumstance, and degrees of personal and financial resources) and justice, which, whether rooted in natural law or sacred principle, connotes an ethical, universal, and unconditional quality of righteousness, indeed, the rightness of fairness for all people.

So, I – who, back in the proverbial day, entered college as a political science major with his sight set on becoming an attorney and who, through a nocturnal vision from God, was called into Christian ministry and who, as a follower of Jesus, seeks to fulfill His gospel-call of love and justice for all people – wonder where this South Carolina barrister draws the line between conventional jurisprudence and scriptural justice. My hunch is, again, as the law and justice, though related, are not the same, that he must. My hope is that he has discerned an unassailable bond between the law and justice and, thus, in a word, seeks to do just law.

Perchance one day, driven by more than merest curiosity, but rather sincerest interest, I may stop by his office and inquire.

 

Footnote:

[1] Another biblical reference I have seen is 1 Peter 3.15: In your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you. Here, I assume his conspicuous and clever emphasis, in a legal sense, is on the phrase “make your defense”, though I also suppose that he means to affirm his Christian hope.

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Dear Sarah

Sarah Cobb is one of the brightest, most earnest, impassioned, and forthright people I, for the past nearly 20 years, have had the privilege of knowing and calling my friend. Sarah is Jewish. She is more than a friend and Jewish or a friend who is Jewish. Sarah, from time to time, serves as…is my external righteous conscience, especially about Christianity’s attitude toward Judaism; in my view, at times, in some lands, and in some sectors of Christendom, rising to the heights or, more accurately, sinking to the depths of antipathy and, historically, largely, I think, characterized by the lethargy of indifference (save, of course, among those Christian evangelists who discern that their primary vocation is to convert all Jews to Christianity).

Over the past few days, Sarah’s various reflections on the so-called “Unite the Right” rally and ensuing violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, have centered on her searing observation that a particularly putrid element of the platform of white supremacy is blatantly anti-Semitic (who, watching and listening to the news accounts, could have missed the out-in-the-open bearing of the swastika-festooned Nazi flag and the ferociously, transparently intentioned chant of the neo-Nazi demonstrators: “You will not replace us! Jews will not replace us!”?) and her eloquent remonstrations about Christians who, at best, have been slow and, at most, have been silent in their, our, my repudiations of the virulent and vile hatred that is anti-Semitism.

Dear Sarah,

I thank you, once again, for reminding me, summoning me to this aspect of my sacred duty as a Christian, as a follower of the Jesus of unconditional love and justice, to denounce any and all anti-Semitic prejudicial hatred and hostility against my Jewish sisters and brothers and in any and all of its forms, cultural and economic, racial and religious.

As one who wills to do, to be unconditional love and justice, yes, I pray that those who harbor anti-Semitic beliefs repent and renounce them. Yet, whether they do or do not, I will not be silent or slow to speak again in opposition to anti-Semitism.

One final word, Sarah, for now…

I do not excuse, but rather explain my silence or slowness to speak. What happened in Charlottesville terrified me. And, in my fear, I, as an African American, perhaps barely consciously, narrowed my vision, focused my passion primarily, solely on the issue, the reality of white-over-black supremacy. Anxiety, I feel, always stirs the fires of individual (and often selfish) self-interest. Hence, I thank you again, Sarah, for you, in your reminder, your summons to me, illumine and compel me to see anew something I already know. Enlightened, indeed, truest human self-interest embraces the sanctity and the safety of all people.

With deepest love and highest respect,

Paul

free speech in the service of justice

Yesterday, Gene Ryan, president of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), Baltimore City Lodge No. 3, issued an open letter to Marilyn Mosby, Baltimore State Attorney, requesting the appointment of a special independent prosecutor to pursue the ongoing investigation into the death of Freddie Gray. (Earlier, Ms. Mosby announced that the six police officers involved in Mr. Gray’s arrest would face a variety of criminal charges related to his death.) The FOP letter, its language properly deferential regarding Ms. Mosby’s “professional integrity” and citing “respect for (her) and (her) office,” expresses “concerns about the many conflicts of interest presented by (her) office conducting an investigation into this case” (among them, her personal and professional relationship with the Gray family attorney and the impact, for good or for ill, on the political career of Ms. Mosby’s husband, Nick Mosby, a Baltimore City Councilman). Mr. Ryan supported his appeal in the interest of avoiding “any appearance of impropriety or a violation of” established professional rules of conduct.

In a press conference, Mr. Ryan’s statement, while somewhat less than combative, was more confrontational, declaring disappointment with the State Attorney’s office “apparent rush to judgment given the fact the investigation into this matter has not been concluded.” Further, Mr. Ryan, both in his live address and in his aforementioned letter, expressed unwavering support for the officers who, in his view, performed their duties without fault or fail. In that belief, he asserted that the “judicial process…will result in a finding of (the officers’) innocence.”

Given my satisfaction, elation with Ms. Mosby’s announcement (May 1 blog post: folk rock), I consider Mr. Ryan’s response predictable. I intend no disregard, much less disdain for his position. Nor do I dismiss it under the heading of “what else would, could the FOP say given its bounden duty to represent Baltimore’s police officers.” Rather, by “predictable,” I expected Mr. Ryan to do as he has done, especially in light of what I behold as a larger reality; one for which I am grateful irrespective of my satisfactions (or dissatisfactions).

America, according to our national anthem, is “the land of the free.” One of our freedoms that bespeaks equality for all and of all is that of speech. Americans possess the right, the authority to express ideas and opinions, whether personal or professional, political or philosophical, publicly without threat or fear of undue retaliation. We, Americans and our experience and exercise of our freedoms, are not perfect. Often enough, throughout our history, we, with eloquent, but ineffectual lip service and good, but flaccid intentions have honored our right of free speech (and other liberties), to paraphrase Shakespeare, more in the breach than in the observance. Nevertheless, our freedoms exist. And one demonstration, indeed proof is our ability and willingness to disagree.

Ms. Mosby’s and Mr. Ryan’s positions stand in profound opposition; one that I consider necessary and, as the rule of law prevails, in the service of justice.

folk rock

On April 12, 2015, Freddie Gray was arrested by officers of the Baltimore Police Department. During transport in a police van, Mr. Gray sustained injuries. On April 19, he died. On April 25, what began as a peaceful protest against perceived police brutality turned violent, leading to personal injuries, arrests, looting, and property damage. On April 27, Mr. Gray’s funeral was held and protests continued in Baltimore and elsewhere. Today, Marilyn Mosby, Baltimore State Attorney, announcing that Mr. Gray was unlawfully taken into custody, his death ruled a homicide, and that the six officers involved in his arrest will face a variety of criminal charges, said, in part, “To the people of Baltimore and the demonstrators across America, I heard your call for ‘no justice, no peace.’ Your peace is sincerely needed as I work to deliver justice on behalf of this young man.”

Of all that might be thought and felt, said and written about what for me is another historic moment in the American system of justice – when the death of a black man at the hands of law enforcement is not another data point in business-as-usual, but rather, given the evidence, propels, compels the hand of judicial government to raise and, in effect, to say, “Enough!” – guided by Ms. Mosby’s words, I focus on “the people of Baltimore and the demonstrators across America.”

I see in them an incarnation of the hope in the fulfillment of the American creed, enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, “that all…are created equal (and) endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights…among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

I say this because the protesters come from every manner of humankind and every conceivable walk of life – young and old, female and male, gay, lesbian, and straight, employed and unemployed and underemployed, religious and non-religious, “good” people and gang members, politicians and professional athletes, and on and on.

In this, it is clear to me that Freddie Gray’s death (or the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, and, sadly, historically countless others) is not solely a matter of import for the black community.

And, in this, it is clear to me that what matters to the black community will not, cannot be addressed by that one identified and accepted speaker à la Martin Luther King, Jr. or body, whether the NAACP, National Urban League, or Southern Christian Leadership Conference (as I recall a news reporter asking a group of black Baltimoreans, “Who speaks for you?”).

For, in this, it is clear to me that what matters to the black community matters to all communities. Black lives matter because all lives matter.

As this is clear to me, folk – all the folk – rock!