Jesus, the Death of Trayvon Martin and the Zimmerman Trial

Posted: July 17, 2013 in Church of the Brethren, Things of Faith

Trayvon Martin Protest - Sanford

The past couple of weeks the US has been captivated as George Zimmerman stood trial for the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. This has become the central focus of many discussions, arguments and outcries as Zimmerman was acquitted of the charges. As I heard the verdict come I must admit that I immediately thought of the late 80’s and the infamous verdict that set off the Los Angeles riots and the ensuing mob violence. Fear is what I’m talking about. Fear of violence in retaliation of the failure of justice. Fear of a society plummeting into the depths of its brokenness as a result of racial inequity. It is the very fear Howard Thurman wrote about in Jesus and the Disinherited. He wrote, “Fear is one of the persistent hounds of hell that dog the footsteps of the poor, dispossessed and disinherited.”

Earlier this week, I happened across a disturbing Facebook conversation taking place on the Church of the Brethren page. A statement was posted (an unfortunate one originating from the National Council of Churches) which instigated a response reflective of a church not just divided but corrupted by the political partisanship of the national religion. Each side of the conversation was pointing out inequities and factual errors of the other. Of course the national media was the primary source of the conversation. What I found particularly disturbing was that apart from the final comment the conversation really didn’t reflect any response grounded in the gospel faith of our Lord Jesus.

The mere fact that such a horrible event is simplified into a dichotomized dialogue should send warning flags up for any follower of Jesus. After a conversation with a friend, I came to three conclusions. First, any Christian response that takes a side is not only irresponsible, but misses the complex dynamics this event holds on a deeply broken society. So how should a Brethren response look? Quite simply it should be reflective of Jesus’ response on the cross. On the one hand there should be a deep and sincere empathy regarding the continued racial inequity and how that affects racial minorities. Moreover, such empathy should recognize the apparent injustice such a ruling would feel like for the family. Their son was killed after all and the court acquitted the person responsible. The apostle Paul instructs Jesus followers to weep with those who weep, anything less is not the way of Jesus. On the other hand, a Brethren response should not only avoid judgment, but also seek to empathize with Zimmerman the fear and demonization his is about to experience. At the very least there should be a mournful recognition of the brokenness that led to such a tragedy. At best the response should be two-sided reaching out through ministry for those on both sides of this.

Secondly, even as believers should not be rush to judgment regarding George Zimmerman, we should look at the situation surrounding Zimmerman. We must acknowledge the likelihood of him being formed primarily by the culture and national religion. For numerous reasons when something is unknown about a person’s faith, it is better to assume that they were simply unaware. And scripture again leads us to following Jesus by not judging but working toward healing and salvation. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”

Fear Is the Mindkiller

Finally, I am thoroughly disturbed by brothers and sisters embracing this fear base culture of gun-toting self-protectionists. Jesus himself said that he was within his rights to call down a legion of angels for his protection, but instead uttered the words “Father forgive them.” There is no greater sign (short of worshiping the flag) of a person’s syncretism with the national religion than one who insists on carrying a firearm as an expression of a constitutional right. The only time that the New Testament speaks of freedom is in the context of believers being freed from sin. And that statement is tied directly to being made a slave to Christ. The way of Jesus is about sacrificing of one’s self (and rights) for the sake of others. The very nature of the love Jesus modeled for his disciples was self-emptying love. What I find particularly troubling about the gun culture is that most of the arguments emerge out of a culture of fear: fear of attack, fear of assault, fear of trespass, fear of theft, etc. If I am a follower of Jesus and a citizen of God’s in-breaking kingdom, then what do I have to fear? To be such, (follower… and citizen…) one is consumed with loving God and loving neighbor (including Jesus’ interpretation – enemy). The scripture that always comes to my mind when I am tempted to give way to fear is 1 John 4:16b-18. “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in this world we are like him. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love” (bold emphasis mine).

English: Ahava ('love' in Hebrew), Cor-ten ste...

Therefore, in the face of a divided people who want to simplify issues to “either or”, the only Brethren response that consistently bears witness to Jesus is “both and.” One of the greatest lessons I learned on my recent trip to the Holy Land (this past Christmas), was that the only equitable answer to the Israeli – Palestinian conflict is to be for the people on both sides. Not for partisan politics or institutional structures, but for the people. We must learn to love all people regardless of how difficult it sometimes is. As people claiming membership in a fellowship grounded upon Jesus’ teachings, we must move beyond the cultural rhetoric to respond in word and deed with the gospel of God’s peace (shalom) through Jesus the Lord and Messiah.

  1. And from our “both and” response, we should seek out, in our own ways and lives, how to live the justice we earnestly desire and transform our own communities. We can mourn with those who mourn and be merciful to the man who pulled the trigger without engaging in the same broken system that brought about the tragedy in the first place. Speak prophetically, yes… but with any words we may say about “There is a better justice” we need to make sure we, ourselves, exemplify that justice in our own dealings, attitudes, and actions… if we don’t at least make the attempt at overcoming the brokeness in this world ourselves, how can we hope to help the rest of the world? We are trying to remove the speck from the eyes of our society when our own plank of our own brokeness is glaringly obvious.

    Sorry… minor rant… Thanks for this article… I think it is VERY important…

  2. Yes, we should love everybody, even enemies. And we should not simply join one side of a “political” or cultural conflict. Jesus did not come to take sides; he came to take over. Yet this meant he not only showed mercy to all; he also challenged the sin of all. And some sides were worse than others (e.g., the “brood of vipers,” the scribes and Pharisees).

    Also, I don’t think we can separate the “people” from their political and cultural context; we can’t simply be “for the people,” when the people are an integral part of various sinful political and cultural situations. The people are often aware of what “side” they belong to, and certain reasons why. Zimmerman was aware of his role to “police” black “intruders” in his close-knit neighborhood (a role that included carrying a gun).

    In Gal. 5:1f. Paul writes about Jesus giving freedom, freedom from the law of Moses (the law of the people of Israel), especially its “initiation” ritual of circumcision. In 5:10 he mentions those (Judaizers) who are troubling them, and adds in 5:12 that he wishes they would “mutilate” themselves. Paul does not seek revenge or violence against these enemies, but he speaks strongly against them (and their people, those loyal to them). In this, Paul is following Jesus, whose taking sides against the scribes and Pharisees (and the crowds loyal to them), exposed their sinful use of power in that political and cultural context.

    Zimmerman must be exposed as well for his willing role in hating and hounding black people. And the political state (of Florida) and its law of Stand Your Ground must be denounced if it means getting away with shooting and killing black people who cause fear (by standing their ground).

    This is not about transforming communities; it is about exposing their sin and calling individuals to recognize and leave behind their loyalty to a certain sinful side and join the side of Jesus. And since churches are often more loyal to a certain cultural side (like “national religion”) rather than disciples of Jesus, it includes exposing them as well.

    • wait, what? says:

      This case has nothing to do with the ‘stand your ground’ laws – that law was not the defense for the shooting and was not a part of the court case. Maybe those laws need to be changed, but mixing that issue up with the martin/zimmerman case is wrong. It is wrong of the media (both sides) and wrong by the President. I appreciate your comments; however, ‘stand your ground’ laws probably would only be relevant here if Martin had killed Zimmerman. In that situation, it seems to me that many of those now deriding the ‘stand your ground’ law would be supporting it.

      The martin/zimmerman case is yet another example where people use a specific incident as the vehicle for really debating a general issue. That is not fair for any involved in the specific incident, because it quickly becomes not about the specific facts or evidence but rather about the general issues. That is why people can disregard so quickly specifics like how the ‘stand your ground’ case was never used as a defense – because although they are using the martin/zimmerman case as the vehicle to debate long-standing issues, it stops being about that. That is the ultimate disservice to Martin and Zimmerman both, that while people care, they do not care enough to actually focus on the specifics of their lives. Zimmerman becomes a generic part of a powerful majority (regardless of the fact he is of ethnic heritage) and Martin becomes a thug.

      The majority of people made their minds up about what happened that night the evening they heard about it and they have spent the time since simply reinforcing their view by listening to people who agree with them and vilifying people who don’t. For them, no amount of evidence in either direction will affect the stance they have chosen (‘you say Zimmerman’s sneaky with money?’: ‘Well, what would you expect from someone like that?’ or ‘how else can he defend himself from this attack?’ or ‘you say Martin was high on Marijuana?’: ‘well of course he was, see I told you’ or ‘why should that matter, it was a small amount, you are profiling!’).

      There is a lot there for the church to learn from.

  3. Lori Casanova says:

    Thank you…

  4. Allen Kahler says:

    Thanks Andy. Both and is a hard concept for many and will be with us all our lives. We need to continue to educate and minister people the Gospel of Peace.

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