Thursday, August 14, 2008

A "True Threat:" Rev. Pinkney and the Book of Deuteronomy and in many other publications

Pastor Bill Wylie-Kellermann

Rev. Edward Pinkney, a Missionary Baptist assistant pastor in Benton Harbor, was sentenced June 26 in a Berrien County court to 3-10 years on a probation violation for quoting, in King James, several curses from the Book of Deuteronomy in an opinion piece for The People's Tribune. Judge Dennis Wiley ruled that it was a "true threat." Until then I had thought the bizarre event of the day was that I was at the hearing as an "expert witness" in Scripture.

Here's the background of the case: Benton Harbor these days is a black city (94% with 70% unemployment) while across the river, St Joseph, world headquarters to the Whirlpool Corp, is virtually all white. (See Alex Kotlowitz, The Other Side of the River for one account of the racial apartheid represented here). 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, largely white, township. Certain City Commissioners were facilitating the project.

Rev. Pinkney and his wife Dorothy had previously joined BANCO (Black Autonomy Network of Community Organizations) and been involved in Berrien County courtwatching, exposing publicly what they saw as racist and corrupt practices of the court - including measurable concerns about the racial composition of juries. Now they became lead activists and community voices against the project. Predicated on a police incident, they initiated a recall campaign against Glen Yarbrough, perhaps the most powerful politico in Benton Harbor. Using a strategy of grassroots organizing which employed substantial absentee balloting, the Pinkneys prevailed. Yarbrough was recalled by a margin of 54 votes.

Whereupon the county prosecutor's office launched an investigation into the absentee balloting and brought suit against the Clerk to invalidate the election. The City refused to provide her legal defense. Without physical evidence and largely on the testimony a young woman (a drug user and sex worker regularly in trouble) who was given immunity, a small number of absentee ballots were declared invalid. Although the number was far less that the 54 differential, the judge ordered a new election.

Meanwhile, based on the election case, warrants were brought against Pinkney not for tampering, but for "handling" absentee ballots and for buying votes (he had admittedly paid people $5 to pass out fliers, not uncommon). A racially mixed jury was hung on all charges. Mistrial. While he was under indictment and with substantial funding coming in under Yarborough, the election was reversed, though by only 40 votes, and he was reinstated.

Not content, the prosecutor brought the charges again, and this time Rev. Pinkney was convicted by an all-white jury. 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. 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 Butbaugh violated him on his probation and Pinkney had been in jail for more than six months awaiting this June 26 hearing.

The text in question is edited and adapted from Deuteronomy 28:15-22 (KJV). Which also brings us to my debut as an expert witness in Scripture - and a little bit here about the book of Deuteronomy on which I was asked under oath to comment. The book itself is cast as a long discourse by Moses delivered just before the people crossed 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 economic and political provisions worth noting. It is a body of law which defends and advocates for the poor.

Perhaps best known these days are the provisions of the Sabbatical Year in chapter15 which mandate every seven years, the release of debts so there 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 "forty 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 wives, nor silver and gold. The king is to write out a copy of the law for himself to read it all the days of his life. This includes the provisions for gleaning - a remainder of wheat and olives and grapes 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)

Moreover, these chapters (from which Rev Pinkney has drawn) 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:

"See, 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 authentification (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.

My biblical scholarship did not, however, carry the day. For sentencing the room filled up with three kinds of cops. Rev. Pinkney had been in handcuffs the entire hearing. (That I suppose was the visible presumption of "threat.") After weighing through the legal arguments and case law citations which will come into play on the appeals, His Honor began what seemed to me the real demeaning and defaming of the day, calling Edward Pinkney a fraud who had denied people their right to vote, for whatever interest of his own - the right, Judge Wiley averred, for which so many in the civil rights movement had spent their lives. Indeed. On the biblical question, the Judge seemed to determine that Pinkney was using his reverendness to call on God for the enforcement, but in any event determined for the record that this was a "true threat."

I'm not aware of any past behavior on his part which would be the basis imagining a physical threat from Rev Pinkney. But it must truly be that he is threatening to their plans and project. A voice which has not yet been silenced. But 3 to 10 years for quoting Deuteronomy?

And I thought being an expert witness in Scripture at a probation hearing was bizarre.

Bill Wylie-Kellermann 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. Contributions may be sent to the Rev. Edward Pinkney Defense Fund, 1940 Union Street, Benton Harbor, MI 49022; visit the BANCO website at ;an online petition may be found at

Bill Wylie-Kellermann
Pastor, St. Peter's Episcopal Church - Detroit