At ReadTheSpirit, we’re constantly telling you about spiritual voices trying to change our world for the better. We’re trying to cover the prophetic messages arising these days in books, films and new media.
TODAY, that includes reporting on a prophetic letter to a multimedia news magazine that — as strange as this may sound — is sending a Baptist pastor, the Rev. Ed Pinkney, to prison for 3 to 10 years. His crime? While already under the court’s supervision from an earlier legal dispute over a hotly contested local election — Pastor Pinkney prophetically published a biblical curse calling down the justice of God on a local judge.
Today’s story was written by the biblical scholar, author and teacher, the Rev. Bill Wylie-Kellermann, who was called by Pinkney’s attorneys to testify in the case — and came away from the experience so stunned by the outcome that Bill felt moved to write about it.
“Rev. Pinkney isn’t a saint and it would be wrong to portray him that way — but he’s also far from the images sometimes portrayed by his opponents in this case, as though he’s stupid or a violent threat. He is by no means stupid. And he isn’t a violent threat,” Bill told me as we prepared to publish today’s story. “But he has been challenging this court’s record, especially as it concerns racial balance. And, I was just amazed at what happened when he published this passage from Deuteronomy. It’s an important story and I think people will want to read about this.”
The background details in this story were reported by Bill from his own research and from various news sources. The photo of the Rev. Pinkney is from the multimedia, activist newspaper, The Peoples Tribune, which published the commentary that sent him to prison. The Michigan Citizen also has been covering the case. As far as we can tell, the major Michigan newspapers, the Free Press and News, haven’t reported on what has happened to Pastor Pinkney — so, at this point, it’s pretty much activist media trying to fill in the gaps.
With Bill’s story today, that array of activist writers has added a fairly important voice to the coverage. Bill is a contributing writer to Sojourners among other national magazines and is a widely respected author on issues related to faith and justice.
Here’s his story on how — despite his expert testimony as a Bible scholar — one pastor is going to spend years in prison for calling down God’s wrath from the Bible:
A “True Threat”
the Rev. Pinkney and the Book of Deuteronomy
By BILL WYLIE-KELLERMANN
The Rev. Edward Pinkney, a Missionary Baptist assistant pastor in Benton Harbor, Michigan, was sentenced recently in a Berrien County court to 3-to-10 years on a probation violation. His offense? He quoted from the King James Version several curses from the Book of Deuteronomy in an opinion piece for The People’s Tribune, a Chicago-based newspaper and online news magazine.
Judge Dennis Wiley ruled that it was a “true threat” and that Rev. Pinkney should head to prison.
Until that remarkable sentencing, I had thought the most bizarre twist in this case was that I was being called into court as an expert witness on Scripture. Actually, there were supposed to have been two of us — myself as a Christian scholar and a rabbi, too, but at the last minute the Jewish scholar couldn’t make it.
Benton Harbor these days is a black city (more than 90% black with 70% unemployment) while across the river sits the city of St Joseph, world headquarters to the Whirlpool Corp and virtually all white. (To read more on this, see Alex Kotlowitz, “The Other Side of the River” by clicking on the book’s title or cover image.)
Several years ago a former CEO of Whirlpool began advocating for a major development ($500 million worth) of condominiums and golf course on the Benton Harbor side which would take the river and lake front, including the city’s only public beach park. It was planned that the project would be separated from Benton Harbor and become part of an adjoining, and largely white, township. Certain City Commissioners were facilitating the project.
The Rev. Pinkney and his wife Dorothy had previously joined BANCO (Black Autonomy Network of Community Organizations) and been involved in Berrien County courtwatching. They literally sat in courtrooms and documented what transpired there, including the racial makeup of juries. They helped to expose what they saw as racist and corrupt practices of the court -– including concerns they documented about the racial composition of juries. In addition to these efforts, they also became leading community voices against the big development project.
They even politically challenged one of the most powerful figures in Benton Harbor, City Commissioner Glen Yarbrough. The Rev. Pinkney became convinced that Yarbrough hadn’t acted properly in leading the city’s response to one particularly troubling police incident. So, the Rev. Pinkney campaigned successfully to recall the commissioner with a margin of 54 votes.
That wasn’t the end of the dispute with Yarbrough, though. The county prosecutor’s office launched an investigation into the handling of absentee ballots in this close election. Many observers question the legality of what unfolded, but the Rev. Pinckney ended up paying dearly for his activism: A new election was ordered. This time, Yarbrough’s recall was reversed (this time by 40 votes) and the Rev. Pinkney was convicted by an all-white jury of improperly “handling” absentee ballots.
Judge Alfred Butzbaugh sentenced him to a year in jail and initially placed him on house arrest pending appeal. Conditions of his probation included being electronically tethered with strictures against participating in electoral politics or publishing material that demeans or defames public officials.
Which bring us to the People’s Tribune article by the Rev. Pinkney. Something of a rant, the
article includes the following paragraph:
Judge Butzbaugh, it shall come to pass; if thou continue not to hearken unto the voice of the Lord thy God to observe to do all that is right; which I command thee this day, that all these Curses shall come upon you and your family, curses shalt be in the City of St. Joseph and Cursed shalt thou be in the field, cursed shall come upon you and your family and over take thee; cursed shall be the fruit of thy body. The Lord shall smite thee with consumption and with a fever and with an inflammation and with extreme burning. They the demons shall Pursue thee until thou persist.
On that basis, Judge Butzbaugh violated him on his probation and the Rev. Pinkney landed in jail for more than six months awaiting this June 26 court hearing in which I was called as an expert witness.
The text in question is edited and adapted from Deuteronomy 28:15-22 (KJV). And, since this was my debut as an expert witness in Scripture, let me add a little background that I came to court to share about the book of Deuteronomy.
This book of the Bible is cast as a long discourse by Moses delivered just before the people cross over the Jordon into Canaan. The bulk of it is legislative material coming from the tribes of the northern kingdom. It is actually an interesting choice for curse citation, because in addition to a version of the Ten Commandments, and covering such matters as marriage and divorce and tithing and instruction for Passover celebration, it includes a number of economic and political provisions worth noting.
Among other things, it contains a body of law that defends and advocates for the poor.
Perhaps best known these days are the provisions of the Sabbatical Year in Chapter 15 that mandate, every seven years, the release of debts so there shall be “no poor among you,” and for setting free all slaves (since most were “indentured” debt-slaves, these were much the same thing), and with a stake of livestock and crops –- not unlike the idea of providing people with “40 acres and a mule.”
Also included is the first “constitutional” limitation on royal power in history: Chapter 17. Kings are not to multiply their horses (the military), nor their wives, nor their silver and gold. The king is to write out a copy of the law for himself to read all the days of his life.
There also are biblical provisions for gleaning –- so that a remainder of wheat and olives and grapes would be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow.
“You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I am commanding you to do this thing.”
The whole of the book is framed as a covenantal document which is how the blessings and curses of chapters 27 and 28 come into play. They are the binding element, the curses that those who say Amen to the covenant call down upon themselves as the power of enforcement. Perhaps the most interesting thing in this regard is that the list of actions cursed, most of which are from the Ten Commandments, include one reserved for anyone who “moves a neighbor’s boundary marker” and another for the one who “deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow, of justice.” (27:17, 19)
chapters (from which the Rev. Pinkney drew his text) actually function as a convent renewal ceremony, in which the book is read aloud and the people voice their affirmation on perhaps an annual basis, so it is full of present-tense urgency in which the people hear themselves named: I call upon you; this day; now; today.
Perhaps the most famous choice-putting comes from chapter 30:15-20: “I have set before you today life and prosperity, and death and adversity; in that I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in God’s ways and to keep these commandments and statutes and judgments, that you may live and multiply, and that the LORD your God may bless you in the land where you are entering to possess it…I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants, by loving the LORD, by obeying God’s voice, and by holding fast to God…”
Of course the big question for the expert witness was: Are these to be carried out by human agency or divine?
My response was twofold: One, Moses, who speaks, is dead and buried four chapters later and does not follow them into the Promised Land. He seems an unlikely enforcer.
When the book of Deuteronomy is “rediscovered” during a rehabilitation of the temple in 622 BCE, the book is taken to the prophetess Hulda for authentication (2Kings 22: 15-20). She specifically speaks in the voice of the Lord: “Tell the one who sent you to me, thus says the LORD, ‘Behold, I bring evil on this place and on its inhabitants, even all the words of the book which the king of Judah has read…But to the king of Judah who sent you…Regarding the words which you have heard, because your heart was tender and you humbled yourself before the LORD when you heard what I spoke against this place and against its inhabitants that they should become a desolation and a curse, and you have torn your clothes and wept before Me, I truly have heard you,’ declares the LORD.”
However, my biblical scholarship did not carry the day. For sentencing, the room filled up with three
kinds of cops, some of them guarding the doors as if the judge was anticipating violence of some kind to break out — or break in on us — even though I saw not the slightest sign of such a response.
In fact, throughout the entire hearing, the Rev. Pinkney had sat in handcuffs at the court’s instruction.
After weighing the legal arguments and case-law citations that will come into play in the appeals process, His Honor began what seemed to me the real demeaning and defaming of the day: Referring to the underlying dispute over ballots in the recall election, the judge called the Rev. Edward Pinkney a fraud who had denied people their right to vote — a right, the judge averred, for which so many in the civil rights movement had spent their lives.
On the biblical question, the Judge seemed to determine that the Rev. Pinkney was calling on God for possible enforcement, but in any event determined for the record that this was a “true threat.”
I was stunned. I’m not aware of any past behavior which would be the basis for imagining a physical threat from the Rev. Pinkney. Much more likely, he truly was threatening the larger plans and project in that deeply divided spot in the Midwest and was prophetically calling for divine help. Serious questions remain about the fairness of the underlying case involving ballots.
But, on that day, the court tried to silence one pastor’s voice — with “three to ten” for quoting the Bible in response to a judge.
Please, tell us what you think.
CLICK on the Comment link below to add your thoughts to this article. You also can Email ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm directly.
AND — You can Email Bill Wylie-Kellermann directly. He is a United
Methodist pastor serving St Peter’s Episcopal Church in Detroit. He is faculty for the Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education in Chicago and adjunct at Ecumenical Theological Seminary of Detroit. If you feel so moved: Contributions may be sent to the Rev. Edward Pinkney Defense Fund, 1940 Union Street, Benton Harbor, MI 49022; visit the BANCO website at http://www.bhbanco.blogspot.com/. There’s also an online petition at http://www.thepetitionsite.com/takeaction/624471377.