Like many Americans I watched the news and social media closely after the George Zimmerman verdict was announced. The reaction on social media especially was fascinating if somewhat predictable.
Was the verdict the “right” one? I think as far as the judicial system goes it was. As a very casual observer I saw nothing come to light from the prosecution to prove their case and much of what was presented was at least as helpful to the defense as it was to the prosecution. I am glad that the feared violence at the result was muted, perhaps because many people realized the weakness of the case against Mr. Zimmerman. Of course this is 2013 and that means that even when a jury of his peers acquits Mr. Zimmerman there are plenty of voices calling for another trial on the basis of “civil rights violations”, lack of evidence of racial animus and the clear specter of double jeopardy notwithstanding.
We are entering a dangerous era, a time when people accused of certain crimes will face both the traditional justice system and then in certain high profile cases the court of public opinion and political pressure. I think it goes without saying that, right or wrong, this case never would have come to trial had it not been for the national outcry and media coverage. If Mr. Zimmerman had been black no one would have heard of this case outside of Florida. But he is not and his identification as a heretofore rarely heard of “white hispanic” means that the media circus is not anywhere close to being over.
After laying all of that out there I fully recognize that my perspective on this event is far different than that of other Americans. I have never been pulled over without cause. I have always been treated with at least a modicum of respect. I don’t by and large see police as people to be feared unless I am speeding. For many of my fellow Americans that is not the case. Many have been discriminated against and dealt with the omnipresent reality of prejudice all of their lives. No one looks at me with suspicion because of my skin color. Even as a young person who got into more than my share of mischief I always got the benefit of the doubt. Many Americans have a completely different experience. The reality of my upbringing is the lens through which I view these events, just as other people see this entire ugly situation through their own lens. Even in this day and age it is very difficult to look at something like the killing of Trayvon Martin objectively.
So how should the church look to this avoidable tragdy and respond (if at all)?
First each and every human being was born dead in sins and trespass. Not to use a sweeping generalization but tragedies like this are an outworking of the actions of sinners in a creation groaning under the weight of sin. If anything we should be thankful that God uses Caesar to put limits on the acting out of human depravity. Perhaps I am cynical or jaded but I harbor no fairy tale illusions of human nature left unchecked. There is a reason God has instituted earthly secular rulers and that reason is to be a check on otherwise unrestrained human depravity. People are not basically good, they are basically lost and outside of cultural barriers and various upbringings are prone to all sorts of selfish mischief.
Second this event should be a reminder to us of the very real racial and ethnic divisions in America that are part of the very fabric of our country. There is usually very little constructive dialogue between religious leaders who seek to exploit our racial wounds for their own gain and those religious leaders who seem oblivious to it amidst their all white local church interspersed with the occasional adopted child that is Asian, black or Latino. We cannot pretend that this division is not there or that it is OK, not when the church is in many ways more divided by race than almost any other institution of American life. It is something we have to deal with, if the adopted people of God from every tribe, nation and tongue cannot stand to be in the same building as others who are different from them on Sunday morning, what does that say about how valid our faith truly is?
Third we see on full display the results of a confused gender narrative in America, a narrative where young men do not have appropriate same gender role models, whether that be a father or some other adult man. Knowing very little of the case it still can be ascertained that the culture that Trayvon Martin seemed to be consumed in is one where manhood is found in violence and misogyny. It is a well-known culture and easy to denounce but for many young men there is little alternative to this culture other than a childhood spent being the target of others who exhibit their masculinity in caricatured and often violent ways. Like many other young black men this culture is at least partly complicit in his death, a tragic everyday event in our culture that gets little media attention because young black men killing other young black men is not something the news media and various professional George Zimmerman strikes me a man with little understanding of what being a man means (see this excellent essay by Daniel Flynn writing for the American Spectator titled Two Males, No Men). He apparently sought to fill this gap by seeking out “manly” pursuits and on that fateful night two men with no understanding of masculinity came together and one is dead.
As many have said, there are no winners here. This wasn’t a victory for good old fashioned American values. It was a weak man being stupid and a confused young man responding that led to a violent clash and a dead 17 year old. One hopes that as a nation and as the church we can learn from this but sadly history does not give me much hope. How I long for the day when 17 year old young men are no longer shot to death but until that day we must look forward to our hope in Christ and tell others why we have that hope. We can and we must do nothing else.