Nearly one month after 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was killed in Sanford, Fla. and with over 1.3 million people having signed a petition calling for the arrest of George Zimmerman, the man who shot Martin, President Obama gave a personal plea for justice and “soul-searching” from the White House lawn this morning.
Here are some of the facts of the case (you can find more facts by clicking on the links or doing your own research): unarmed Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, who was a neighborhood watch leader. Zimmerman had called 9-1-1, describing Martin as “suspicious.” Zimmerman claimed self-defense, and was found with a bloody nose and wound on the back of his head. Trayvon Martin’s father lived in the gated community where he was killed. Florida has what is called a “Stand Your Ground” statute, which authorizes citizens’ use of force in certain circumstances. No arrest has been made.
Here is what is being debated (again, not exhaustive): if Zimmerman used a racial slur during his 9-1-1 call, if Martin actually attacked Zimmerman or if Zimmerman was actually pursuing Martin, if Zimmerman was under the influence of drugs/alcohol (he was never tested), how well police investigated the case originally.
I’ll admit, a lot of what I read makes me lean towards thinking that George Zimmerman needs to be arrested and tried, at the very least. But what bothers me about this case and too many other public cases is what we don’t know…and what we may never know. A lot of people are weighing in on what should happen here. But that is not the purpose of my blog. I want to take a moment and reflect theologically on the “what we don’t know” factor and how the Gospel speaks to our ignorance. So following are a few pieces of “what we don’t know” in this case (and others):
1. What really happened. This is not to say that there isn’t or won’t be enough evidence to convict George Zimmerman, but we must face the reality as human beings that there are limits to what we can know, and thus limits to our ability to execute justice. This is not a case where we are wondering who killed Trayvon Martin. It is a case where we are trying to piece together stories, claims, and various people’s perspectives on why and how it all happened. The problem in such cases is that people lie, fill in their own blanks, assume, and misinterpret. Within these realities, I am incredibly thankful that we have a God who knows and a God who cares about justice. As the author of Hebrews writes, “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” In other words, the story of justice in the case of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman does not end with the decision of police officers, a judge, and a jury of fallible human beings. The case is ultimately and forever decided in the throneroom of God, who sees not only events but what is going on in the heart. God will make all things right, even if we get it wrong. We are absolutely called to seek justice here and now as the Kingdom of God is a just kingdom, and Jesus tells us to seek and pray for God’s “will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.” But thanks be to God that we don’t have the last say.
2. The people who signed the petition. Petitions like the one for Zimmerman’s arrest mean little, in my view. We do need to hold accountable the people whom we have entrusted with executing justice in our society. But the online petition is so impersonal and disconnected. If you really care about justice in this specific case, if you have done your research and believe this is a place you need to speak out, pack up and be a part of one of the rallies, make a phone call, write a personal letter, send money to one of Martin’s advocates. The online petition is no more than another “Like” click on Facebook, in my opinion. Of the 1.3 million signers, maybe 1 million of these people care. Or maybe .3 million of them care. But we don’t know. So what does it really mean? I think the kind of justice God calls us to seek is intended to be a characteristic of a community, not just an abstract ideal. Divorcing justice from community is what allows us to think we are following God’s call by simply typing our name onto a list. What ultimately happens is that this “commitment” to seek justice fades as soon as media coverage ends.
3. The people in our own communities. I am haunted by interviews, again and again in high-profile cases like this one, of people who say something like, “This just isn’t the person we knew” or “We could never have seen it coming.” Whether Zimmerman is guilty or not, the fact remains that we don’t really know the people in our “communities.” People who are supposedly experts on Zimmerman mention things like, “He was an altar boy in the Catholic Church” or, from a former neighbor, “[Zimmerman and siblings] were very well behaved. They didn’t run around loose or anything” (really?). Very few of our actions are “out of character.” Almost everything we do is actually “in character”; it’s just not a part of our character that others have taken the time to see. We are surprised when someone acts out because we are so detached from each other. We do not take time to know each other’s hearts. We see the obvious actions (like what neighbor kids do in the yard) and facebook posts and whether someone was in church or not, but none of these really have anything to do with truly knowing someone. None of these have much to do at all with community. We watch Dateline or 20/20 and acquaintances of someone who has just killed his wife and kids will say, “He was just a really normal, good guy.” Based on what? The evidence at hand states otherwise. We have one obvious example of our disconnect with people in our community in the Martin case itself. According to one of Zimmerman’s friends, “He had a passion for the safety of our neighborhood” (at least enough to carry around a 9mm to protect it). And yet, he didn’t care enough to know the people in his neighborhood, or perhaps Trayvon Martin wouldn’t have been so suspicious. This is why God’s community is about doing life together, being in each other’s homes, asking each other probing questions, challenging each other when we see ways we are not reflecting Christ, and–as dirty a word as it may sound to many of us Protestants–confessing to one another our struggles with sin. I’m not saying anyone could have predicted that Zimmerman would kill Trayvon Martin, but perhaps we wouldn’t be so “shocked” by these things if we realized how superficially we really know one another.
There are some things we simply cannot know as limited human beings. For those, we rest in the justice and grace of a sovereign God. There are some things we can know “dimly, as in a mirror.” For those, we do the best we can to seek justice and love one another with whatever provisional knowledge we have. There are also some things that we can know. For those, we Christians must be diligently attentive to God’s call to community. Do we ask our spouses, parents, and kids deep questions that get into their hearts? Do we engage in real life with our church family so that we built intimate relationships of knowing at a heart level? Do we cultivate community in our neighborhoods so that we can truly “seek the peace and prosperity” of the place God has put us? If we don’t, we shouldn’t be shocked to see what happens in our communities. I pray that President Obama’s call for soul-searching extends beyond the laws and people relating to this case itself. I pray that we would be pursuing deeper, more intimate, more real community–the kind of community for which Jesus pursues with us.