Editor’s Note: This lecture, given to the Society of Christian Ethics on January 10, 2015, is reprinted with the permission of the author.
I have been asked to develop a set of reflections on the moral lessons I learned from breaking the law. Here is part of that story. In 1961 I was arrested and put in jail in Little Rock, Arkansas. I was a “freedom rider.” Then, ten years later, a group of us calling ourselves “The Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI” broke into the Media, Pennsylvania office of the FBI, removed the files and released them to the news media. What did I learn from breaking the law? Here are five lessons I learned. I learned that:
1) Law is not to be trusted without interrogating its complicity with privilege and power.
2) Identity is morally problematic, especially if you get yourself born a white male of class privilege.
3) A nation that lets itself be governed by fear will become a poorly governed nation.
4) The arrogance of power contributes to its own demise when confronted by persistent resistance, and finally….
5) I learned that the anger called hope can overcome despair, create a community of resistance and build a future that seemed impossible.
Let me begin with the issue of law and criminality. It is my contention that breaking the law and committing a crime are not identical. Indeed, I would go further. I would claim that under certain circumstances not to break the law is a crime—a crime against justice. That is what I learned back in 1961 when being found guilty of “threatening a breach of the peace” when four of us—two blacks and two whites—sat down together in the “White” waiting room of the Trailways bus station in Little Rock.
The law, indeed the set of laws we challenged and broke imposed segregation. It was a clear violation of the civil liberties guaranteed to all Americans by the Constitution and its several Amendments. Law, as there conceived, was the crime, and the only way to stop the multiple injustices it was imposing was to break that law and expose its criminal intent.
What I was forced to examine by that experience was the whole relationship between law, on the one side, and privilege and power on the other. I was forced to examine how law for the most part is imposed by the powerful to protect and defend their own interests. There is and always has been a complicity between law and how it is practiced with racial, gender and class structures of privilege. I concluded that my task as an ethicist was to approach law with a hermeneutic of suspicion. But that hermeneutic was not an easy task for folks of my kind, for folks enjoying the promise of a future secure position within the professional-managerial class.