What does our response to George Zimmerman’s shooting of Trayvon Martin reveal (or better, betray) about us?
There has been a lot of discussion of the proper way to respond to this tragedy. But Jesus says that before we can judge the other, we must look at ourselves. Before we can respond, we need to reflect. And so, just as we did with Newt Gingrich’s open marriage, and just as we should do every time we feel the urge to denounce another person for their sin or brokenness, we have to do the difficult work of seeing our own brokenness in the event we wish to condemn. That is, we must identify with Zimmerman first.
If we fail to do so, our response to the shooting of Trayvon Martin, despite our best intentions, is simply another instance of the very system of violence we are trying to denounce. How so? If we do not first find ourselves in Zimmerman our self-righteous “standing up for justice” creates and perpetuates the “us vs them” system. And it was that system that led to violence in the first place.
In other words, unless we admit that we have a log in our own eye, we do more harm than good by pointing to the speck in George Zimmerman’s.
And if we allow ourselves to create an “us vs them” system then we run the risk of never dealing with our own brokenness. If we simply denounce violence instead of using it as a mirror to see inside of ourselves, we simply externalize the problem onto a societal scapegoat (as Girard would say). In a form of self-denial, Zimmerman allows us to denounce violence while never dealing with the same violence we find in our own heart.
And when I look in my own heart, what do I find? Well, it’s not pretty. But here are a few things that I need to seriously reflect on:
We are all (not) racist. Zimmerman is not a racist any more than I am. The problem is not whether we love black people but whether we are unknowingly participating in systems of racism. It’s a system that most of us participate in but are unwilling to admit to, either to others or to ourselves, especially to ourselves. We have inherited a society of stereotypes and fears. Unless we bring them to the surface, we will continue to perpetuate violence without even knowing it. We have to bring ourselves out of mass denial and bring up feelings and fears that we have spend years repressing. How do we do this as a church in a way that does not create “us vs them” but reconciliation, both between races but also in myself?
Grace as a double-standard. This is the most disheartening revelation. When I see someone else do something wrong, I self-righteously call on God for justice. But when I do something wrong, I self-righteously call on God for grace. Of course, this reveals a deeper problem: How can God be a God of justice and yet be a God of grace? And how can we, as his people, stand up for justice and yet be a people of grace? These questions afford no simple answer.
But I don’t need an answer to admit that I have a double-standard. Often, our answer to how we reconcile a God of grace and justice is often incredibly self-centered: He is a God of grace toward me but I demand him to be a God of justice toward you.
God I am so mad at you for not punishing evil. What happened to justice?
God I am so mad at you for punishing my evil. What happened to grace?
Are we truly okay with God showing grace to my enemies? Before I even think of loving my enemy, I must first wrestle with whether or not I am even okay with God loving my enemy.
1 But to Jonah this (that God didn’t give to Nineveh what they deserved) seemed very wrong, and he became angry. 2 He prayed to the LORD, “Isn’t this what I said, LORD, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. 3Now, LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
…the LORD said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. 11 And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”
-Jonah 4:1–3, 10–11