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Criminalizing protests in Florida is not the Christian thing to do | Column
The executive director of the Florida Council of Churches argues that protesters should be protected not prosecuted.
Police create a barrier between a group of protesters and Kaitlin Bennett, a gun rights advocate who hosts the Liberty Hangout show during her visit to the University of South Florida campus on Wednesday, Oct. 7, in Tampa.
Police create a barrier between a group of protesters and Kaitlin Bennett, a gun rights advocate who hosts the Liberty Hangout show during her visit to the University of South Florida campus on Wednesday, Oct. 7, in Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Dec. 16, 2020

The biblical prayer for good government is anchored in Psalm 72: “Give the ruler your justice, O God … May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.”

The Rev. Russell Meyer
The Rev. Russell Meyer [ Provided ]

The Geneva Bible recognized here the mandate for people to overthrow an unjust government. The United States was born from that mandate. There is nothing more patriotic, American, or for that matter faithful, then to protest injustice.

This past summer saw nearly 25 million, including thousands across Florida, protest the injustices that have plagued our nation from its beginning. But the response from our elected officials has not been to “crush the oppressor”. Just the opposite. Gov. Ron DeSantis proposes to crush peaceful protesters by arresting and jailing them until a judge releases them, create new felonies for civic action, and mandate jail time. His proposals violate First Amendment guarantees and sacred mandates. The bipartisan accomplishments in recent years to improve justice would be reversed just so he could stop Floridians from gathering to tell him when he is wrong.

A faithful people prays that government does right and protests when it does not. Why? Because we all carry responsibility for our neighbor, most especially the widow, the orphan, the homeless, the sick, the stranger, the one in need.

Jesus lived in the streets, welcomed foreigners, ate with the despised, protected women, embraced children, stayed with lepers. We see Christ in the face of the hungry child, the homeless man, the woman without healthcare, the victims of racist policies, individuals brutalized by police; in anyone the world steps on. To identify with Jesus is to identify with those he favored. For Protestant Christians like me, our roots in the bible insist that he hold our elected government accountable to its God-ordained purpose of ending oppression. It is how we brought the reign of empires, monarchs, and despots to an end.

The governor says he wants to stop “rioting and looting.” Yet even a casual study of civil rights history shows that authorities default to accusing people and groups they don’t like of being “agitators” with hidden motives. There is no hidden motive here. People want an end to police brutality and the injustices regularly perpetrated against American citizens. The overwhelming majority of people want to see an end to racism, especially in the criminal justice system.

In the last six months, the infection in the nation’s soul has burst into open. Corrective surgery must be done to eradicate systemic racism in our criminal justice system. Punitive minimum mandatory laws now push Florida’s prison population to almost 100,000 people. COVID-19 has become a death sentence in prisons. The state continues to cut college scholarships to pay for its mass incarceration. Now the governor would catapult Florida to international leadership in holding political prisoners.

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Protesters need to be protected, not arrested. The best defense of liberty is in exercising it. If these wayward proposals become law, people engaging in peaceful protest will be locked up, while others will be intimidated and dissuaded from protesting in the first place. The hammer will fall hardest on those who have long suffered from racism, bias, and prejudice in this state. A free people speak their mind. But that’s the thing the governor seems to want to prevent. He wants to take away liberty. Note well: Liberty is for everyone, or no one really has it.

Romans 10:14 asks, “Why do you pass judgment on your sibling? Or you, why do you despise your sibling? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.” The authorities were constantly troubled by Jesus Christ, so they arrested, sentenced, and executed him. Yet standing before Pilate, Jesus challenged his governor to understand that authority comes from God, who expects truth in those who govern. They have a sacred duty to defend the oppressed and crush the oppressor.

The governor’s proposal, and any like it that silences cries of injustice, repudiates what Jesus taught and hinders us from realizing the more perfect union to which we all pledge allegiance. I pray Florida’s lawmakers institute God’s mandate for justice.

Rev. Russell L. Meyer is the executive director of the Florida Council of Churches.

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