There was a huge outburst of emotion this past weekend as the jury in the George Zimmerman case handed down its verdict of “Not Guilty”, absolving Mr. Zimmerman of any responsibility for the death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenager. While I’m sure that there are some people who favored the verdict, the bulk of the reaction seems to be outrage that the man who admitted killing Trayvon, though, he argued, in self defense, was not being held accountable for it. How, so many have wondered, is it possible that an unarmed young man was killed, and no one is legally responsible?
It is tempting, but difficult, to try to put ourselves in the place of the jury. In our system, if there is any room for reasonable doubt in a case like this, then the jury is required to acquit the defendant. In this case, the jurors who listened to the testimony and the presentation of the cases must have concluded that there was some room for doubt, and did what the law requires them to do in such a case.
This trial demonstrates the limits of law. Most of the time, I think, the law and the legal system that embodies it works the way it is supposed to work, accurately holding people who have committed crimes responsible for what they have done. It is nevertheless true, however, that in the history of our jurisprudence, many innocent people have been wrongly convicted, and if that is true, then it stands to reason that a number of guilty people have gone free. Human systems are never perfect, and the legal system is no exception.
This past Sunday, in many churches, the story of the Good Samaritan was the Gospel reading for the day. It is a story, as one preacher pointed out, that tends to invite our immediate judgment on the people who crossed the street so as to avoid encountering, and having to deal with, the man who had been left beaten on the side of the road by unknown robbers. Naturally, we wonder how they could have been so heartless. As that same preacher also pointed out, however, there is another question that the story should invite but which we often don’t consider. And that is this: how is it that the robbers were able to attack the man in the first place? What sort of people are these, who would do such a thing? And what sort of a society produces such people?
The natural reaction of probably most people in this country, and even around the world, to the verdict in George Zimmerman’s trial is to wonder how the jury could possibly have taken the role of those in the Good Samaritan story who crossed the street. How could this jury have passed the body of Trayvon Martin and not held his killer responsible? For me, however, the more important question has nothing to do with the jury, but with the incident that brought that jury together. How is it that we have a society in which an unarmed teenager can get shot by an armed citizen on his way home? What is it in Mr. Zimmerman’s life that allows him to become so overwhelmed by fear of another, much younger human being that he feels justified to kill that person? And, if Trayvon Martin had not been black, would events have unfolded differently that night?
Last week, I wrote about the Paula Deen controversy, and I suggested that what we tended to miss in our response to that controversy was the opportunity it provided to us to search our own hearts and souls. The Zimmerman verdict — a far more serious matter — provides us with the same opportunity to search not only ourselves, but the heart and soul of our society, as well, and to ask if this is the kind of world we want to live in? Is this the sort of society we want? This case asks us hard questions about violence and racism in our culture, and how we deal with them — or don’t.
In the New Testament, there is a lot of discussion about law, particularly in the letters of St. Paul. There, the discussion is about the Jewish law and the way it was interpreted and practiced centuries ago. In meditating on that law, St. Paul observes how limited the law is as a device. It shows us where we fall short, but it does not empower us to create real and lasting change. That sort of empowerment depends on grace, that is, it depends on a genuine movement of the human spirit as that spirit is embraced, touched, and led by the Holy Spirit. In short, law can only take us so far. Where law fails, a genuine human-divine movement is required.
In the Zimmerman case, law has failed. Whether it failed systemically, or whether it failed simply because the prosecution’s case was not sufficiently strong, will be debated for a long time to come. But our outrage at that failure needs to move beyond a focus on the jurors or the legal process to the hard questions that the death of Trayvon Martin raises in the first place. What we need now is a genuine movement that seeks to get at the roots of violence and race relations in this country, a movement that recognizes that — regardless of legal outcomes — it is never okay for someone to end up dead on his way home. Trayvon Martin is dead, George Zimmerman’s soul has been damaged, and neither is okay. The law will not save us from future incidents like this. We must choose to walk a different path as a people and a nation.