I’ve heard complaints that protesters excuse destructive rioting and looting claiming life over property. No doubt something like that has been said, but I missed it. It raises questions. Do the lives of the oppressed mean less than property and merchandise? Do the lives of protesters mean less than property and merchandise? Because mass protests often provide cover for destructive rioting and looting, does that make them complicit? Should protesting be forcibly limited as a prophylactic against riots? If riots occur should non-rioting protesters be treated as if they were? Where is the dividing line between protest and riot?
Wanton destruction and looting of property is reprehensible, and organized crime and street gangs will be a part of it if they see the opportunity. So will opportunistic individuals organized by no one. Those protesting in the name of justice are not likely to be among them. Yet, among protesters will be some so angry at what they see and experience that they pick up whatever is handy and throw it with intent, something in a calmer state of mind they would not do. It’s likely you’ve done it yourself in a moment of anger or frustration, maybe not in a mass protest but in your house, or at a game, or place of work. That doesn’t make it right, it makes it common.
As important as these questions are, they avoid something even more challenging implied in the complaint about life over property. There is wide spread belief that private property, and the owner’s right to its exclusive use, is sacrosanct. Defending it with force is always justified. There is another wide spread belief that society has an obligation to create conditions under which justice is guaranteed to its members who have long experienced injustice. The two oppose each other if they get significantly out of balance, as it appears they are today when entrenched racism makes the property rights of whites more important than a society in which equality of treatment for non-whites is a reality, not a vague promise.
One acquaintance demanded to know by what authority is life, in that sense, more important than property. Who says? As a Christian and Episcopal priest, my answer is, God says.
The ethical prophets of the Hebrew scriptures hammer the point that a nation’s sins against God are located in the injustices heaped on the oppressed and poor while wealthier people of property enjoy the good life. Christian scriptures of the New Testament echo them, especially in chapters 9 and 12 and 17 of Luke’s gospel.
Luke 9.25: “What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves.
Luke 12.16: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasure for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
Luke 16.19: “There was a rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, full of sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table…(and both died; Lazarus went to heaven to be with Abraham, the rich man did not; after some exchange across the chasm between them)…Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish.” The parable ends with the rich man begging for messengers to be sent to his family to warn them to change their ways, to which Abraham replied that they had been warned, many times, it’s in the bible, if they won’t pay attention to that, no messenger will change their minds.
If anyone proclaims to be a Christian, individual rights as defined by the American ideal of autonomous individualism must always be subordinate to God’s commands for a just society. They’re not unimportant, there is no intent to take away freedom, but they are subordinate to a society in which godly justice prevails. What is godly justice? According to the Almighty ‘himself’ it is to:
… loose the bonds of injustice, undo the thongs of the yoke, let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke. To share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin. Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will, say Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. (from Isaiah 58)
Contrary to libertarian ideology, it’s not the individual householder alone on whom these obligations fall. Neither are they excused from individual responsibility toward them. The obligations fall on the community, the society. It is society’s obligation to undo the yoke, let the oppressed go free, feed the hungry, house the homeless, and clothe the naked. Our kin are more than immediate family. Our kin are our fellow human beings. It is society that is to establish conditions making it more possible for fewer to be oppressed, poor, hungry, and homeless. We are not autonomous individuals living near one another but having little responsibility for one another. We have our individual rights and freedom only because we live in community that recognizes and defends them. A just society does not recognize and defend the rights and freedom of some while denying the same to others, and that is what we’ve been doing for too long.
So yes, life trumps property. Says who? Says God.