by Dan Bryant
We should live in a democracy where the rule of law still holds for all
I’ve always considered myself more of a “social justice” guy than a “law and order” person. Not that the two are necessarily in opposition, but growing up in the Civil Rights era and amid Vietnam War protests, I found that law and order were usually on the wrong side of justice. Rather curious then, that I find myself now longing for the triumph of law and order over Mar-a-LawGone.
I was too young and too far away to march with Martin Luther King Jr., and the draft ended before I turned 18, so I had no draft card to burn. My only serious brush with the law came when the sheriff of Marion County tried to arrest me and a handful of others in the summer of 2000 for “unlawful prayer.” That’s not what they called it, but that’s what we were doing — praying that is. Whether lawfully or unlawfully wasn’t actually the issue.
To the credit of the seven deputies that arrived that night — eight if you count the four-legged K-9 team member — they respectfully waited until we finished our prayer in the labor camp. “You are trespassing,” said the deputy in charge. “No,” said I, “we are clergy engaged in our right to attend to the spiritual needs of these workers as guaranteed by Oregon law.”
“Do you have a copy of that law?” asked the deputy, as if carrying a copy of the Oregon Revised Statutes is routine for clergy. Bible, check. Hymnal, check. Prayer book, check. Now where did I put my copy of the ORS? Oh yeah, here it is, in my back pocket! “Huh,” said the deputy, reading the photocopy I had made of the relevant statute. “Would you mind remaining here while I call this in?”
And so it was that we continued to sing and pray with the farmworkers for an extra 15 minutes — and maybe between prayers we mentioned something about their right to unionize and a few other things about the rights of workers, but gee, my memory has gotten a little fuzzy. But I’ll never forget the deputy’s words when he returned: “You are right, and we will stay here until you are finished to protect your rights as religious leaders.”
I am not sure all seven deputies and the K-9 unit were needed to protect those rights. We encountered only one hostile person, the crew boss, who seemed to think we were nothing but union agitators. In reality, we were nothing but religious people, and, well, maybe a little bit union agitators. All for the cause of justice.
I learned something very important that night. When the law is in your favor, it is a good thing to have in your back pocket. “An unjust law,” on the other hand, “is no law at all,” wrote Martin Luther King Jr. from the Birmingham jail. Our obligation in this era, if democracy is to survive, is to uphold the just laws and strike down the unjust ones.
Can one steal government documents for a just cause? Daniel Ellsberg would say yes, and history has judged his release of the Pentagon Papers as the right call. But hiding top secret documents amidst your framed Time magazine covers? I am having a hard time seeing any justice in that cause.
But here is what I find most disturbing. When David Frost got Richard Nixon to say on national TV, “If the president does it, it’s not illegal,” that sound you heard of the rushing wind was the collective gasp of the nation, Republican and Democrat alike. Everyone — well, maybe not Uncle Jim who always was into those crazy, nonsensical conspiracy theories — everyone understood the bedrock principle that no one in a democracy, not even the president, is above the law.
Today it appears that Uncle Jims have taken control of major sections of our society. Now a former occupant of the High Castle can say if he does it (take secret documents home), it’s not illegal, and all his followers say, “That’s right!”
Seriously? What country is this?
Either we can have a democracy where the rule of law still holds for all, and perhaps we argue over what is just and what is not, or we can have an autocracy where one rules the law over all, and we long for what was just and is now gone by the sea. I raise my glass and say, “Here’s to law and order!”
Dan Bryant is an ordained minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and a resident of Eugene since 1991. The opinions of this article are his own and do not represent any organization with which he is affiliated.