Ferguson has become the intersection point of several social vectors that have plagued the United States for some time. These include the reality of a permanent American underclass characterized by despair and lawlessness; the militarization of policing, encouraged by the federal government; an omnipresent media that routinely inflame passions in pursuit of profit; the widespread practice of business redlining, which adds to the isolation of minority communities; and the ongoing issue of race, especially with regard to the criminal justice system.
From a Catholic point of view, police are invested with the authority necessary to maintain public order, which contributes to, and even enables, the common good. This authority even extends to the use of arms: “The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm. For this reason, those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their responsibility.” (CCC #2265)
At the same time, police must exercise their authority justly, with a view toward restoring the tranquility of order within society: “Authority is exercised legitimately only when it seeks the common good of the group concerned and if it employs morally licit means to attain it. If rulers were to enact unjust laws or take measures contrary to the moral order, such arrangements would not be binding in conscience. In such a case, authority breaks down completely and results in shameful abuse. It is preferable that each power be balanced by other powers and by other spheres of responsibility which keep it within proper bounds. This is the principle of the ‘rule of law,’ in which the law is sovereign and not the arbitrary will of men." (CCC #1903,1904)
Citizens, too, have a responsibility to act in accordance with the common good, even when the authorities behave unjustly: “When citizens are under the oppression of a public authority which oversteps its competence, they should still not refuse to give or to do what is objectively demanded of them by the common good; but it is legitimate for them to defend their own rights and those of their fellow citizens against the abuse of this authority within the limits of the natural law and the law of the gospel.” (CCC #2242)
What we don’t know about the Ferguson situation is whether officer, Darren Wilson, acted unjustly toward Michael Brown. The simple array of characters—white policeman, black victim—doesn’t tell us that. What is needed is a thorough investigation into Wilson’s actions, taking into account all evidence and testimony. But that can’t happen until public order is restored. What we do know about the Ferguson situation is that looting, vandalism and assaults are manifest injustices committed against both their immediate victims and the community at large. In order for justice to be done, domestic tranquility must be restored.
In 1968, while American cities were erupting in violence, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave a speech in which he defended his commitment to nonviolence. His words are worth recalling as we watch the situation in Ferguson unfold:
“But at the same time, it is as necessary for me to be as vigorous in condemning the conditions which cause persons to feel that they must engage in riotous activities as it is for me to condemn riots. I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard."
Mark Gordon is a partner at PathTree, a consulting firm focused on organizational resilience and strategy. He also serves as president of both the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Diocese of Providence, and a local homeless shelter and soup kitchen. Mark is the author of Forty Days, Forty Graces: Essays By a Grateful Pilgrim. He and his wife Camila have been married for 30 years and they have two adult children.