Interrupting Injustice with Action in North Carolina

As opposition to North Carolina’s so-called “bathroom law” has mounted from everyone from equal rights organizations, to national business leaders, to rock stars, to President Obama, many observers across the nation find themselves asking: Who outside of Gov. Pat McCrory and the General Assembly leadership support this discriminatory legislation?

As far as I can tell, three organizations are calling upon their base to stand by HB2: #KeepNCSafe—a coalition established for the sole purpose of supporting HB2 — the North Carolina Family Policy Council, and the Christian Action League. The latter two organizations say they promote “Christian values,” which suggests that the “common sense” McCrory and Senate Leader Phil Berger keep referring to in their defense of HB2 is one affirmed by Christian people. At least, this is what they assume and what their political strategists are encouraging them to depend upon.

But having grown up among the Christian people of rural North Carolina, I cannot believe that the majority of us are either naïve or mean-spirited enough to fall for this sort of cynical appeal to religious bigotry. Whatever our convictions on sexual ethics and gender roles, we who follow Jesus know that we serve a Master who interrupted the stoning of a woman caught in “sexual sin” to challenge her accusers — and brought her legalized condemnation to a halt (John 8:11).

This example of Jesus in the public square of his day points to the important distinction a Christian ethic must make between my responsibility to discern faithfulness in personal matters and our shared obligation to defend the weak and promote justice in public matters. About the latter, Jesus makes clear by his own example that “speaking up” is not enough: Sometimes we must engage in direct action to interrupt injustice.

At the temple court with the woman caught in adultery, Jesus’ words do change her accusers’ course of action. One after another, they drop their stones and walk away. On another occasion, however, Jesus is in the same public square, confronting the same public leaders because they are using their power to exploit poor people who have come to fulfill a religious obligation. In that case, Jesus goes beyond words. He engages in direct action.

Jesus’ political insight here is helpful for North Carolinians in 2016. In the first temple court confrontation, he calls out public leaders for exploiting people’s sense of “sexual morality” to condemn a child of God. In the second, he condemns exploitation of poor people by means of “religious obligation.” Jesus aims his critique at religious leaders, and he explicitly condemns the way they misinterpret sexual morality and religious obligation to oppress poor and hurting people.

Two-thousand years later, HB2’s defenders are doing the same things Jesus condemned. They have created a transgender “boogey-man,” told us to be very afraid of him, and insist it is our religious obligation to “protect our women and children.” And, in the very same piece of legislation, they have taken away a city’s right to protect labor abuses or pass a living wage; they have taken away every North Carolinian’s right to sue for employment discrimination in state courts, all the while calling this a “bathroom bill.”

But this is not about bathrooms or public safety. This is about an abuse of power that is as old as the New Testament itself.

Jesus helps us to see through the political trick of cynical politicians who are desperate for re-election. But Jesus also shows us how we must respond.

Like him, we must speak out against religious abuse. “Whoever is without sin, cast the first stone.”

Sometimes, the truth alone can stop injustice. But when it doesn’t, Jesus moves beyond words. When Jesus cries out, “Stop turning my Father’s house into a market,” the moneychangers do not repent. So Jesus turns their tables upside down. He takes a whip and drives them out of the temple.

When it comes to matters of public justice, Jesus is willing to take direct action, just as those who’ve followed him through the centuries have also. When Christian worship was itself illegal in Roman society, Christians took direct action to make public witness, whatever the cost. When the law required cooperation with the pursuit of runaway slaves in this country, Christians in the Underground Railroad risked life and liberty to protect fugitives. When the law in this state required racial segregation, students at NCA&T in Greensboro led the nation in a sit-in movement, taking direct action to defy an unjust law.

Just as we are called to speak the truth in love, we also act in love. Yes, we are interrupting business as usual. Yes, we are refusing to cooperate with the orders of law officers. But we are doing it out of love for our transgender neighbors who want to use the bathroom in peace. We are doing it out of love for the poor and working people who must choose between buying medicine and getting groceries. We do it out of love, even, for political leaders who have become so deluded by power that they may truly believe they are standing for righteousness.

In the way of Jesus we say: no more. In the way of Jesus, we put our bodies on the line to interrupt business as usual.

Some who are sympathetic with our cause will, no doubt, object to our means. We must wait on the courts, they say. We must vote these leaders out in the fall, they contend.

They are not wrong, and we are with them. We have challenged this extremist legislature since its illegal inception, and we have won. But it has taken too long to win. Tens of thousands have suffered and hundreds have died because of their hard-hearted refusal to expand Medicaid coverage at no cost to this state. And several of the cases tied up in courts are about access to the ballot itself. With the franchise under such attack, democracy itself is in question.

While Jesus’ protests in Jerusalem were particular, they pointed to something broader — namely, that the established order could not long endure because it was built on a foundation of injustice. We too are protesting the particular injustice of HB2. But this is about more than HB2. This is about reconstructing democracy in North Carolina. We are interrupting business as usual to say that another way is possible. Another way of doing things is here.

We are North Carolina, and we aren’t going anywhere.

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is co-founder of Rutba House and director of School for Conversion. He is coauthor of The Third Reconstruction: Moral Mondays, Fusion Politics, and the Rise of a New Justice Movement.

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