The Forge and Fires of Baltimore

| May 12, 2015

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If you like American history, then you would have approached the months of March and April, 2015 with a special anticipation, for these months were a time of anniversaries – big milestone anniversaries — of important events in our history.

March 14, 2015 was the 150th anniversary of the second inauguration of President Abraham Lincoln, and his great speech that day – less than 10 minutes long – when he called upon Americans to have malice towards none and charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, to strive to finish the work and bind up the nation’s wounds.

March 7, 2015 was the 50th anniversary of the events at Selma Bridge in Alabama, when armed police attacked peaceful civil rights demonstrators in what was called Bloody Sunday, an event that galvanized the conscience of the nation.

March 15, 2015 was the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s speech to Congress on voting rights, which was perhaps the high point of his presidency.

March 25, 2015 was the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s great speech at the State capital building in Montgomery Alabama at the conclusion of the march from Selma to Montgomery, where he said that our bodies are tired but our souls are rested.

April 9, 2015 passed with little fanfare, but was the 150th anniversary of Appomattox.

Being drawn to these things, I made it a point to watch as much of these historical events as I could.  I watched the then live news feeds from 1965 at the Alabama capital in Montgomery as events occurred there, with the speech by Dr. King, and I read its text.

I watched and read the speech to Congress by President Lyndon Johnson.

There being no such news footage of President Lincoln’s speech, I watched a historical reenactment.

With each one, I was generally familiar with what had occurred and generally knew what to expect.  Yet, as I watched them afresh, with eyes and ears more accustomed to current speeches and current public events, I was surprised.

I was surprised and struck with how Christian each event was. Each event explained itself and expressed itself in Biblical language; and each one unashamedly and expressly held out Christian virtues.

These milestone events, though separated by 100 years, occurred in times of great division, brought our nation together, and took our nation forward, by reaching for the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

I watched the then news footage of the events in Montgomery (which lasted about three hours) and listened first to the singers who entertained the crowd that stood in the rain.  They included Harry Belafonte and Noel Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul & Mary.  Together they sang Gospel songs.  They sang about Moses and Jonah and about Jesus on the cross.

Ralph Abernathy spoke from the Book of Leviticus; and Andrew Young said that we have come here to love the hell out of the State of Alabama.

In the famous speech by Dr. King (of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference) he quoted the prophet Amos: But let justice run down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream. He then turned to Joshua, saying:  The Bible tells us that the mighty men of Joshua merely walked about the walled city of Jericho and the barriers to freedom came tumbling down.

President Lyndon Johnson, before Congress quoted the words of Jesus – what is a man profited if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul – and then applied those words to the nation – saying that should we defeat every enemy, should we double our wealth and conquer the stars, and still be unequal to this issue of human dignity, then we will have failed as a people and as a nation.

President Lincoln’s inaugural address also quoted the words of Jesus, and then Psalm 19: The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.

None of these men tried to “play to their base.”  None tried to find “wedge issues” as we hear about today.  Rather, with the words of Scripture as the foundation for their text, they sought a greater unity and higher vision for Americans.

In those times of deep racial division, President Johnson praised the men and women of the Civil Rights Movement as he said before Congress that   The real hero of this struggle is the American Negro. His actions and protests, his courage to risk safety and even to risk his life, have awakened the conscience of this Nation. … He has called upon us to make good the promise of America.

A few days later, Dr. King at the Montgomery Capital also reached out and said we must pay our profound respects to the white Americans who cherish their democratic traditions…

Abraham Lincoln had won an electoral victory in November, 1864 with large Republican majorities coming into Congress.  He could have waited for the new Congress to easily pass the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery.  But he refused to wait, and chose instead to risk failure, on his commitment that this must be something done on a unified, national, bi-partisan basis.

I believe that it is no coincidence that in times of deep division, it was the words of Scripture that pointed the way ahead, and the words of Jesus Christ that inspired us forward.

There is today, from our political leaders, much talk about trying to find middle ground – between White and Black, between Republican and Democrat, between rich and poor.  It is the best that the world can do in the hopes of generally satisfying as many people as possible.

But as Christians, we know that true unity is not based on finding middle ground. Rather, in Jesus Christ, we find unity not because we seek middle ground, but because we seek higher ground.  We must not be satisfied with the compromise of middle ground; but rather we must push on and push up to find the higher ground of fullness in Jesus Christ.

The events of April, 2015 showed anew that we live today in times of deep division.  The nation has watched as what President Obama described as “a slow-rolling crisis” burst into flames in Baltimore.

The immediate cause of disruption was the arrest of Freddy Gray on April 12 and the critical injuries he sustained in police custody, and by his death of April 19 which the coroner ruled a homicide.

On April 27, the day of the funeral, confrontation between protesters and police erupted into lawlessness, which escalated to riots, looting, and then arson.

It was jarring to hear the statement of criminal charges against the six police officers involved in the death of Mr. Gray; and more so if the events are symptomatic of systemic problems in law enforcement.  American civil liberties depend upon honest, conscientious, and well trained policing.  Without it, the justice system is incapable of delivering justice and the Bill of Rights is legal jargon.

It was frightening to see the potential for violence and lawlessness that lies just below the surface of society, simmering and waiting for opportunity.  The best policing in the world is of no long term value if the citizenry only fears the law and does not respect it.

And it was heartbreaking to see what little economic activity there was in West Baltimore being burned.  More than 200 businesses suffered physical damage, and the physical losses will run into the millions of dollars.  The burden of the lost jobs and destroyed stores will be borne by working class families; and the long term effects will dwarf the damages sustained in the riot itself.  A study of the economic impact of the 1992 Los Angeles riots determined that the city lost a cumulative $3.8 BILLION in sales over ten years.

Government and civic leaders will reach for legal, political and economic solutions to the problems, both immediate and long term.  There are hard questions to be asked, and harder answers to find.  There is much work to be done, but these events can be occasion to renew our values, correct what is wrong, and restore what has been lost.

As Christians, we need to be talking about problems and solutions on a higher level, and an even harder level.  Christians should be talking about reconciliation and unity and forgiveness, not only in words but in spirit.  We must speak and demonstrate those values, rooted in Scripture, that can still inspire a city and a nation.

Category: Faith

About the Author ()

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Email | Website | Thomas Schetelich is a founding principal in the law firm of Ferguson, Schetelich & Ballew in Baltimore, Maryland, and a member of the United States Supreme Court Bar. He heads both the firm’s corporate/ business law practice and its personal legal services department. He is an AV rated attorney awarded for highest standards of professional skill and ethical practice. Mr. Schetelich devotes much of his practice to assisting charitable and religious organizations, and is the President of The Christian Professional Network. He is a frequent speaker on Biblical and legal matters throughout the United States.