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Letter from America – The Oregon standoff

March 2016 | by Ben Wilkerson

Very early in the New Year, on 2 January, heavily armed ranchers and militiamen, led by Ammon Bundy, seized the offices of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, just 50 miles outside Burns, Oregon.

Their intention was to hold the land indefinitely from the federal government, until their terms were met. While this situation may seem sudden and dramatic, the current Oregon standoff is not a stand-alone incident without precedent.

Ever since the federal government converted Indian territories into states and pushed Native Americans onto reservations, the west of America has been engaged in a huge struggle over land and how it is used.

Land disputes

Over recent years, ranchers in the western states have protested against the federal government’s occupation of huge tracts of land in various ways. According to CapX: ‘The federal government owns more than one quarter of the land in the nation, about 640 million acres. The holdings are concentrated in the West, where it owns about half of the 11 westernmost states’.

That’s a massive chunk of land, disputed by ranchers whose political ideologies are generally Far Right and whose claims conflict with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Many believe the land would be put to much better use if it were transferred into local or state governance.

While the issue could be resolved in a court of law, the struggle over land is usually fought through armed standoffs and the arrest of men who have taken the law in their own hands.

Yet the issue is even more complex. The current standoff in Oregon is also a protest against the BLM’s actions against a family of ranchers in that region, who have been seeking to maintain their rights for grazing cattle in the Harney Basin.

The United States, for its relatively short history (only 239 years, compared to the long rich history of the British Isles) has had plenty of armed conflict and unrest, even when you leave the American Civil War out of it. Many of these conflicts, even in America’s infant years as a nation, are not unlike the armed conflicts we hear of today in Burns, Oregon.

Shay’s Rebellion

Shay’s Rebellion in 1786 was similar. It was the first conflict between US citizenry and the new US federal government, which was still cutting its teeth on the Articles of Confederation.

Those who made it home after the American Revolution soon found themselves with little means to support their family, since they had difficulty procuring remuneration from the government. Moreover, the richer merchant class were asking for hard currency, something that folks from the interior (mostly subsistence farmers) simply didn’t have.

A couple of men began organising protests against the government, because of these economic and civil issues, and sought to shut down the courts. After many standoffs with local magistrates, a couple of Massachusetts men — one named Daniel Shays — organised a large force of 1500 and met the militia organised by the governor.

The rebels were subsequently routed and the issue mopped up after a month. This small rebellion brought into focus some stark realities as to the inadequacies of the current government and played a major part in forming the US Constitution, especially in regard to who should deal with local uprisings.

While many would argue (especially those of the Far Right) that federalism has won the day since Shay’s Rebellion, our government has become much more organised and mature since then. Nevertheless, the issues raised by Daniel Shays are still relevant today, as the Oregon stand-off shows.

Hammond family

The situation in Oregon has arisen partly due to a long-standing confrontation between the BLM and the Hammond family, ranchers who have owned their land since 1964 and who were originally allowed to graze public land in addition to their own ranch.

When the BLM and US Fish and Wildlife Service bought all the land around the Hammond’s ranch, the family refused to sell, even after the BLM raised the grazing fees and revoked the grazing permits of other ranchers.

This dispute over land and water usage continued from the 1990s until 2006, when the federal government falsely claimed that Steven Hammond burned the Wildlife Refuge after he lit a counter-fire to stop wildfires destroying the valuable range land.

A police report was filed, but it wasn’t until 2011 that Steven and Dwight Hammond were arrested and charged with being terrorists, and served several months in prison. Upon their release, several BLM officials wanted the Hammonds returned to prison to serve a full term of five years (the minimum term that terrorists serve in prison). So they were re-sentenced in October 2015.

Their second arrest on 2 January provoked the militia that took over the Wildlife Refuge in protest against these injustices. For three weeks, the militia held the federal land and were allowed to freely come and go. On 26 January, as several of the militia leaders were travelling on US Route 395 to another county, US federal and state authorities stopped the vehicles and arrested them. One of the militia was killed as he reached for a gun in his pocket. Over the next several days, more militia (including women) were arrested and jailed. For a brief while, four militia held the building, but the final one surrendered to the FBI on 11 February.           

American psyche

These conflicts get to the very soul of the American political psyche and consistently show how deeply Americans care about their rights, whether it is the right to conduct business freely, to own a gun, or use land however they please.

Men feel that it is their unalienable right to have these privileges and will stop at nothing to maintain them. Incidents such as the current situation in Oregon never involve one solitary issue. This case involves gun rights, land rights, and the balance between state and federal governance.

Such constitutional issues often divide Americans between left and right and have given cause for debate since the 1780s. While many can lay down evidences that show the Hammonds have been exploited and pushed by the federal government, the courts have agreed with the government and now those men are facing further years in prison.

So what might an American Christian think of all this controversy? While I agree with the Hammond’s ideals for less central government, I do disagree with people forcibly taking property that belongs to federal government.

Romans 13

Romans 13 specifically tells us to be subject to the governing authorities and gives us a warning of what happens if we resist them: ‘Therefore, whoever resists the authorities, resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad’ (Romans 13:2-3).

It is not a bad thing to pursue civil liberties and justice, but to do so by breaking other laws is not right. I believe the Hammonds were right in pursuing their liberties to graze their cattle on their land and on public land (as the law dictates), but they should have done so through the courts rather than tearing down fences or (allegedly) starting fires.

The takeover in Oregon is something that many Far Right citizens, many of them Christians, feel is the right thing to do. The general American public — including Christians (and even Republicans) — does not reciprocate that feeling.

In fact, on 19 January, the citizens of Burns, Oregon, told Bundy and his militia that they were not welcome and needed to leave the refuge. Many of them felt their presence would not help the Hammonds to receive clemency.

These kinds of issues are never clear cut, but I hope that this outline gives you an insight into the complexity of this typically American situation. We need to ask the Lord that justice and mercy will be given, and to pray for our civil leaders, as Paul encouraged us to do (1 Timothy 2:1-2).

Ben Wilkerson served with Sheffield Presbyterian Church, UK, and is now a Christian writer residing in the USA


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