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Our response to the ongoing protests and riots matters.
We live in a nation of laws to which all are bound, including those in civil government (law enforcement, legislators, judges, mayors, governors and presidents). THAT is the both the beauty and the stability offered by our constitutional republic. In our system, as Samuel Rutherford famously explained, Lex Rex, or “the law is king.” And yet….from corrupt “deep state” operatives to the evil treatment of George Floyd, we’ve witnessed the subversion of the law. What are we to do?
Quite simply – return to the law. The answer is not to destroy the one system that has actually provided more justice, more liberty, and more opportunity than any other on earth. The answer is to hold it accountable to its own ideal….to “reform” it. And by that I don’t mean “form it into whatever we like.” Rather, in the words of Noah Webster in his 1828 Dictionary: “to abandon that which is evil or corrupt, and RETURN to a good state” . . . to be true to the original intent of the Declaration and Constitution. African-American leaders as diverse as Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave and powerful abolitionist in the 1850s, to Clarence Thomas, a former “black power” advocate and now sitting Supreme Court justice, have fervently defended our Constitution, recognizing that it was the honest and full interpretation of its ideals that led to the abolition of slavery and segregation.
…and so, we must know it. We must understand its foundations. We must root out what has become evil and corrupt…be it policies or people. But we must not abandon the rule of law.
That means that we also must not weaken or emasculate law enforcement. Called to account – yes. Held to the highest standard of the law - yes. Preventing them from responding to crimes against fellow citizens and coordinated efforts across the country to have law enforcement “take a knee” – often by chanting crowds – well, that concerns me. The visual of law enforcement officers, who serve each of us as that “thin blue line” that separates order from chaos, submitting to the demands of an angry, chanting crowd to kneel just doesn’t sit well. It seems to me that there are many better ways that leaders can demonstrate a true commitment to justice - unforced…organically…genuinely and firmly.
That leads me to one last thought. I’ve seen some folks posting comments justifying the riots of recent days by citing the example of the Boston Massacre, which occurred in 1770.
In one meme, you’re given vague details about “an incident” that occurred with protestors who became unruly, shouting slogans and causing businesses to shutter in fear….how the protestors were deemed an unlawful gathering, how uniformed backup was called and ordered the crowd to disperse, how the crowd “threw dirt clods” and then multiple uniformed law enforcers fired into the crowd, killing a black man and how law enforcement later justified their actions, claiming that “they feared for their lives.” The meme then reveals that if you found yourself siding with law enforcement and thinking that the crowd should have dispersed when ordered, know that you just sided with the tyrant king George III over the patriots in the events of the Boston Massacre. Wow – pretty poignant, right? Riotous behavior is part of our patriotic tradition.
ONE. BIG. PROBLEM. Even as emotions ran high after the deaths of not just Crispus Attucks (the “black man” mentioned) but 4 more Bostonians, Patriot leadership defended law enforcement! Yes – you heard me right.
While many of the laws that were being forced on them were unjust, the mob response that cold March night in 1770 was also completely improper. Abuses of property rights, due process, and privacy had increased over the years, but what the colonists repeatedly asked for was simple adherence to the law. They had engaged in lawful resistance – a robust campaign of petitions primarily - and had achieved some successes (like the repeal of the illegal Stamp Act) in that way. What happened that night was directly related to the earlier death of an 11-year old boy who had been shot by a civilian while engaging in mob vandalism against a “loyalist” (an American colonist on the British side.) Now, in the midst of a chaotic, angry mob…vastly outnumbered British troops – on edge and fearful – thought they heard the order to fire and did so. One ragged volley which left 5 dead.
Here was the ultimate test for American patriots: vengeance taken due to what they clearly saw as excessive force or adherence to the law? In this pivotal moment, Patriot leaders put aside popular opinion and their own reputations amongst the citizenry to be sure that they set the example of true justice, holding their own unruly citizens accountable and ensuring that the British regulars were given a lawful trial. And so it was that John Adams, a Patriot, a member of the Sons of Liberty, rose to DEFEND the law enforcers and condemn the riotous behavior. He rightly achieved the acquittal of 7 of the British soldiers and a reduction to manslaughter of the charges against the last 2, thereby avoiding the possibility of the death penalty. Here’s what John Adams said about his participation in those events:
“The Part I took in Defence of Captain Preston and the Soldiers, procured me Anxiety, and Obloquy (criticism) enough. It was, however, one of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterested Actions of my whole Life, and one of the best Pieces of Service I ever rendered my Country. Judgment of Death against those Soldiers would have been as foul a Stain upon this Country as the Executions of the Quakers or Witches, anciently. As the Evidence was, the Verdict of the Jury was exactly right.”
The Boston Massacre was commemorated every year thereafter - in part to inspire Bostonians to continue to oppose the unresolved injustices that they had protested back in March of 1770. But it was also a moment each year to remember and celebrate the honorable and lawful response of the oppressed Bostonians. It was this commitment to principled, biblical resistance that would eventually birth a new nation. Rioting is not patriotism. Let’s stand up against injustice wherever it’s found, let’s bring reform where needed, but let’s also stand for doing so within the protective bounds of the law.