On the night of February 26, 2012, Trayvon Martin, a black, 17-year old, high-school student, was tragically shot and killed by 28-year-old George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida. Zimmerman was armed with a semi-automatic handgun; Trayvon was unarmed. A week ago, on July 13, a jury acquitted Zimmerman of second-degree murder and of manslaughter charges. The decision has obviously stirred up a lot of controversy, and reopened old wounds of racial tension in the United States.
Pastor John, you are actually in Florida right now, having just spoken at the Campus Outreach global staff conference in Orlando. And while you were at the conference, you met with thirty African American leaders in Campus Outreach to answer their questions. And the first question was: “There are a lot of responses out there on the Zimmerman verdict, but you haven’t spoken on it. What was the wisdom in not speaking after the verdict?” Pastor John, what did you say to the group?
Let me just say first of all that that was an unbelievably encouraging meeting with those brothers and sisters. What’s happening in ethnic diversity and ethnic harmony with intentionality is one of the most encouraging things about Campus Outreach. So just right off the bat: there wasn’t any hostility toward me; it was a real, earnest, deep, wise interaction.
Slow to Speak
The first thing I said was that I didn’t write anything extensive because I didn’t know what to say. And I’m still perplexed, and I’m not sure what to say. The new thing since I wrote about it over a year ago is that Trayvon’s mom and dad are more prominent. They are speaking into the situation, and therefore, I think there are a lot of us who have kids (I’ve got a 17-year-old daughter) who can now crawl inside the skin of a mom and a dad, and feel like: Here’s a dead kid. Is this it? Is this just over now? Has justice been done? And you can at least empathize with the seeming meaninglessness of it all. And so I want to be slow to speak into that, where the pain is so great.
And frankly, I’m very perplexed by the legal dimensions of it. I don’t know about the “stand-your-ground law” and whether that’s a wise law or not. I haven’t had a chance to think through the details of what that law says, what it means, and whether it has terrible aspects to it or not. So that’s the first thing I said: I was just perplexed, and I wasn’t sure.
In Human Skin
What I was sure of was that when I read Trillia Newbell, Al Mohler, and Thabiti Anyabwile, what I saw in those articles seemed wise to me. And so I linked to them, and the tip-off that I gave to how I was feeling was that one of my tweets ended with the phrase: “Trayvon Martin—our son.” Now that little phrase, “our son,” was intended to say that right now, a lot of us are simply feeling that dimension of it. We’ve all got daughters and sons; here’s one that’s been lost in a seemingly crazy, tragic, and unjust way. And we can put ourselves into his parents’ shoes, into their skin. And the text with regard to that, which is always in my mind regarding empathy, is Hebrews 13:3:
Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body.
And when I read that text, I think: I’m in skin; they’re in skin. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s white skin or black skin. We’re in human skin. And we can feel what others feel. At least that’s what I think we should try to do.
Aching for Justice
And so when I ask the question, Was justice done? well here’s an answer that I hope everybody would agree on: George Zimmerman sinned. I listened to the 911 recording over a year ago when I wrote about this the first time. And we know that the 911 responder said, “We’re on this; you don’t need to follow him.” And Zimmerman followed him anyway. We know that he outweighed him by a hundred pounds. We know that he had a gun and Trayvon didn’t. So all of these things stack up to the fact that this was not the way to go about this for George Zimmerman.
Now we’ve got a verdict of not guilty with regard to manslaughter and not guilty with regard to murder. But that doesn’t mean not guilty. And this is true with just about every provocation in the world. And this is why I think that at this point, Christians, who have a high view of the Bible, and a high view of God’s justice, and that Jesus Christ is going to be the judge of all people someday, have a very important message. Because justice will be done; it will be done. And either the sins of George Zimmerman will be on Jesus on the cross because Zimmerman has humbled himself, repented of his sin, trusted in Jesus, and made him his Lord and Savior by faith, or he will suffer in hell forever for all his sins, including these. That’s the choice in front of all of us — including George Zimmerman.
So we all know that God is in the business of seeing to it that, in the end, there is nothing swept under the rug. No sin will be committed that’s not punished — either on the cross because Jesus bore it, or in hell because we will bear it. That’s the deeper response that Christians can bring to this. It doesn’t mean you blow off the issue of whether justice needs to be done here in this world. We should work toward the most just laws we can. And we should see to it that any case where injustice has been done, we try to redress that for the sake of justice here and now. But the reality is: it’s never perfect here and now, and therefore, Christians have an absolutely glorious message that everybody’s sin can be forgiven if they turn to Jesus, and those who will not have justice that way, because Christ bore the just penalty, they’re going to bear the just penalty.
So my heart ranges over those emotions: from empathy to a mom and a dad who’ve lost a 17-year old, and don’t feel like the sins against him have received the proper recompense; all the way down to reflections on whether a stand-your-ground law is a just law, all the way to the fact that, in this case, sins were committed, and someday every one of those sins is going to have its proper response.
History of Disproportion
What would you say to those who are listening, and they’ve studied the trial, and they saw an exhaustive FBI investigation uncover no history of racial animosity from Zimmerman toward blacks. In fact, Zimmerman partnered with a black friend when he opened with his insurance office. He tutored black kids. He has no history of racial slurs or anything like that. What would you say to those who are mystified by the racial tensions produced by this verdict?
Yeah, it’s not just about race, even for those who think it is about race. But the question still stands, and here’s a piece of it, and since I’m white, I’m clearly not able to speak with a full sense of empathy as to how the black community sees this. But one thing that’s sure is that there is a history behind this — a longstanding sense that there is a disproportionate finding of guilt for blacks and less guilt for whites. I think that’s verifiable historically.
So I think every time something like this comes up, the black community takes a deep breath, holds their breath, and wonders: Will there be the same disproportion again? That’s the backdrop against this.
And here’s another piece of it: There’s a trial that’s being juxtaposed to this one, by comparison of a black woman, who had a gun and was being threatened. She did not shoot the threatening man; she shot either into the wall or into the air, presumably to scare him away. And for that shot, I think she’s facing three years in prison. Now maybe there are more details to that, just like there are more details to this one. But if I were black, I’d look at that and say, is that just another illustration of disproportionate finding of guilt more easily if your skin is one color than another color? So that’s at least part of it.
And I think President Obama is right that the best we have is our judicial system, and our jury trials. And when it comes down, we have to accept it. But it doesn’t take away the dismay. It doesn’t take away the frustration. And it doesn’t take away the history. So I think whites should have some ability to understand the feelings that are out there.
Christ over Every Issue
So you were speaking to African American Christian leaders in Orlando, who are now going home to address this situation on college campuses with their people. What do they do? They can’t simply ignore this, can they?
You do have to talk about this; you can’t run away from it. And what Campus Outreach can do, and what a Christian who’s deepest burden is to lead people to Christ can do, is to find the balance between addressing every issue at the level of its public, social-media dimension, and going beneath that issue to what’s feeding up into the surface issue. And we evangelicals can lose our calling and our mission by constantly getting entangled in the details of issues at the popular level, and fail to get to the root level.
So I say there’s a balance. It would be wrong to say to the person who wants to talk to you about this issue, “Oh, I don’t talk about those things; I just talk about Jesus.” No, that’s not right. Jesus relates to everything, and therefore, we need to listen to them, empathize with them, and give whatever opinion we have about the level of what we can know through the media.
But then we want to say to them, “You know, what I’m really about on this campus is that beneath all these issues, there’s another issue of your sin and my sin, your selfishness and my selfishness, your rebellion against God and my rebellion against God. And Jesus Christ has a message of repentance and forgiveness and substitution for us on the cross, so that if we would come to him, some of the root issues that are feeding into the injustices of the world can be remedied and solved.
So that’s the way I would want to encourage campus ministers, or just any Christian, to deal with this: listen, engage, but don’t leave it at the level of: Was justice down? Or, How would you feel if you were Trayvon’s mom? Listen to all that, deal with all that, and then go to that deeper issue of: Where is all this coming from in our world? Where is it all going to lead? And Jesus has some deep, profound, glorious things to say. He’s not just about transforming racism at a superficial level, as if to say, “If I could just produce some humble racists, I would be happy.” No, he’s eager to go way deeper than that — down to the place where all of our sins, whether its racism or pride, are getting started, and sever the root with faith in the finished work of Christ.