Bible, Baltimore and Beyond

05/18/2015 04:28 pm ET | Updated May 18, 2016

To paraphrase the Stark words from Game of Thrones, summer is coming. Ferguson and Baltimore are likely to be the beginning of a series of (looking for a neutral term here) conflicts. Thus, it behooves us to try to think about the recent events in Baltimore in clearheaded, non-partisan ways.

Unfortunately, the discussion seems already to have become polarized and politicized. Some on the Right lump all of the protesters together, characterize them as thugs, and suggest that they have been corrupted by the nanny state. Meanwhile the Right exonerates the police as responding with understandable reactions to severe provocation. Some on the Left describe the police as brutal enforcers of the unjust rules of an unjust society. Meanwhile, the Left describes riots as understandable responses to ongoing, socially-sanctioned, racist violence.

I propose to take a step back, and think about how to think about Baltimore. When trying to assign responsibility, people can go wrong in two general ways. Some people have incorrect principles of justice; others apply their principles incorrectly. (Of course, one can go wrong in both ways.)

Avoid favoritism.

Curiously, the Left and Right seem to be utilizing many of the same principles of justice when talking about Baltimore. They agree at the level of principle, and they are using the right principles. Principles are not the problem.

Left and Right differ by applying these principles in opposite directions. A pair of Biblical passages offers some guidance in applying general principles to particular cases.

"Do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich. (Lev 19:15)

Clearly, the Bible cautions against showing deference to the rich because of the possibility of bribery (Ex 23:8). It is less clear why the Bible warns against favoring the poor. The Bible may worry that its numerous admonitions to be generous to the poor (e.g. Lev 19:10) will incline judges to favor the poor. Or perhaps the Bible just assumes that people have a tendency to sympathize with the impoverished. (That one might be biased against the poor, rather than for them is not even on the Bible's radar.)

The Biblical admonition to favor neither the rich nor the poor may easily be generalized, and applied to Baltimore.

"Whatever one's principles of justice, one should apply them in an evenhanded manner to all concerned parties."

One should favor neither rich nor poor, neither Black nor White, neither men nor women, neither citizen nor foreigner, and (most relevant to Baltimore) neither police nor protesters.

If you refrain from blaming the police until after the investigation because, "One should not rush to judgment before the relevant facts are determined," then you should also refrain from blaming the protesters until the relevant facts are in.

If you excuse the wrongdoers among the protesters because, "One should not blame people for wrongs they do under severe stress and provocation," then you should also excuse the police for wrongs they do when severely stressed and provoked. (But are protesters and/or police severely stressed and provoked?)

If you refrain from dissing the protesters en masse for the actions of a few wrongdoers because "Blaming a large group for the acts of a tiny minority is simple prejudice," then you should insist that police as a group should not be censured for the actions of a few bad apples. (But are there only a few wrongdoers and/or only a few bad apples?)

If you refrain from blaming the law enforcement culture and training of the police for warping the police officers' character because, "People are responsible for their own actions," then you should refrain from blaming parents and social policies for warping the protesters' character.

Don't split the difference.

So far I have said nothing contentious. Of course, principles should be applied evenhandedly across-the-board rather than in a one-sided, biased manner. Acknowledging this is easy; the only difficult part is doing it.

Unfortunately, it is also easy to slip from the uncontroversial demand to apply principles evenly, to a widespread, but mistaken stance that poses as evenhandedness.

The Bible cautions us against this error in the famous story of Solomon and the disputed baby. When a baby dies in the night, its mother steals a living baby from another woman, and claims the living baby as her own. The real mother and the kidnapper bring their dispute to King Solomon for judgment.

Solomon says, 'Cut the live child in two and give half to one and half to the other.' The real mother begs, 'Please my Lord, give her the live child; only don't kill it!' The kidnapper insists, 'It shall be neither yours nor mine; cut it in two.' Solomon rules, "Give the live child to [the first woman], and do not put it to death; she is its mother." (1 Kings 3:24-27)

The story illustrates not only Solomon's wisdom, but also the absurdity of thinking that both sides in a dispute always have equally legitimate claims. One moral of the story is this.

"When people make incompatible claims about a situation, do not assume that truth lies in the middle, or that both claims are equally valid."

When two sides disagree, it is just intellectually lazy to assume that each side is half right, or that both sides are equally blameworthy, or that both positions are equally justified, etc. Although in many conflicts, both sides have a point, they seldom have equally valid points. And sometimes only one side has a reasonable point; the other side is totally wrong. Splitting the difference, like splitting the child, sacrifices something very important -- the truth.

Moreover, this variety of intellectual laziness can have serious social consequences. If many people routinely accept that both sides are equivalent, then one side can exploit this laziness to change the terms of the debate. One side can gain ground by repeatedly making increasingly extreme claims.

So get off of your butt, and figure out the truth!

Although we do not yet know the details of the conflict in Baltimore, we do know several relevant things.

  1. Blacks have been complaining about racial bias in law enforcement for decades. Moreover, there are widespread allegations that police react with inappropriate violence, especially in situations involving Blacks.
  2. Protests have been numerous and diverse, running the gamut from funny-and-bitter phrases (e.g. Driving While Black) to massive marches (e.g. New York City, 12/14/14).
  3. The facts bear out these complaints of bias and violence. There really is a big problem.
  4. Society has not made much of an effort to fix this problem.

From these points we may draw a conclusion about the police. (a) Racially biased law enforcement is not restricted to "a few bad apples" or "situations of severe stress and provocation." Some systematic changes are necessary within police departments.

We may also draw a pair of conclusions about the protesters: (b) one about anger, (c) another about tactics. As Donald Rumsfeld said about the Iraqis in 2003,

While no one condones looting, on the other hand, [b] one can understand the pent-up feelings that may result from decades of repression and people who have had members of their family killed by that regime, for them to be taking their feelings out on that regime. [c] And I don't think there's anyone ... [who wouldn't] accept it as part of the price of getting from a repressive regime to freedom.

Perhaps the civil rights movement would have succeeded without the riots of the '60s, but then again perhaps not. I hope that current society will do what it takes to make law enforcement less racist, but I cannot blame those who have lost that hope. As Martin Luther King said in 1968,

It would be morally irresponsible [to condemn riots] without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.