Sunday, July 14, 2013

Reflections on the Zimmerman Verdict

Tonight we learn the George Zimmerman has been acquitted in the death of Trayvon Martin. The verdict is just minutes old, and we now wait to learn how people across the country and around the world will react.

As for me, I cannot help but think about Habakkuk. Yes, perhaps it is a strange sort of place for a mind to go from Sanford, FL, but Habakkuk perhaps has something to say to all of my friends tonight. I have friends, you see, who will decry this verdict, certain that a man got away not only with murder, but further with racially motivated profiling and a hate-crime. I have other friends who will celebrate this verdict, confident that a man who was merely defending his home and his neighborhood from a criminal was not punished for standing his ground.

All of my friends have some ground to stand on in their speculations, because all of these things happen. People in our world commit crimes motivated by pure racial hatred. People in our world get away scot-free with murder. People in our world presume guilt or innocence based upon nothing more than a person's appearance. We stereotype. People in our world kill other people simply because they don't like the group of which they are a part. This doesn't just happen occasionally. Somewhere in the world it happens every day. We've probably all seen Mississippi Burning, and that film cannot be categorized as "fiction."

People in our world who are innocent get swept up into witch hunts. People in our world sometimes find the truth and save the day using politically incorrect means like profiling or yes, even waterboarding. We remind ourselves that the ends do not justify the means precisely because sometimes unsavory means lead to the right ends. People in our world sometimes find themselves, though they are entirely innocent, with neither a good alibi nor a handy corroborating witness nor—what you've seen on television notwithstanding—a grain of pollen in their coat collar from the betula papyrifera that only grows in a three-block range in this particular city. People get railroaded, or sometimes they just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. We've probably all seen The Shawshank Redemption, and although that film actually is a work of fiction, it is certainly not a work of fantasy.

Oddly enough, my groups of friends who will arrive at such different conclusions on this topic are actually searching for the same thing: justice. There are a few things that we all know about justice. And I mean all of us—every human being knows these things:

  1. We know that, even if justice may cut against us from time to time, we have a mysterious desire and need for it.
  2. We know our desire and need for justice is among the more compelling reasons why we endure having a government.
  3. We know that, however well or poorly our government delivers justice, none of us always receive it perfectly, nor has anyone ever.
  4. We know that, although all governments are imperfect with regard to delivering justice, they are not all EQUALLY imperfect. Our trial-by-jury system just may be the least-worst way out there.

But it seems to me that there is a fifth thing that we THINK we know about justice: We're pretty sure that we know what it is. That is, we tend to display a pretty strong self-confidence that we will know justice when we see it.

And that's why I'm thinking about Habakkuk tonight. If there's anything we ought to learn from Habakkuk, it is that we should be a little less confident that we would know justice when we see it. Oh, Habakkuk saw INJUSTICE clearly enough, particularly when perpetrated by others. Habakkuk was greatly perturbed by his observation that "justice comes out perverted." He came to God about it and asked the Lord to do something about it, right away, please.

"I'm right on top of that," the Lord answered. And then God outlined His plan for bringing justice to the situation. "I've got the Chaldeans warming up in the bullpen, Habakkuk. They're coming in next week to execute my justice upon Judah."

Well, I don't have to exegete the whole book here. Suffice it to say that God's justice didn't look like justice at all to Habakkuk. He did not like it one bit. Surely, we ought to be able to relate to Habakkuk's plight. After all, we live in a society in which God's plan for justice in marriage law looks like injustice to a lot of people. God's justice regarding forgiveness of debts in the Year of Jubilee looks like injustice to a lot of other people. God's justice on the subject matter of strangers and aliens among us strikes some people as unjust. God's justice on display in the substitutionary atonement of Christ is horrifically unjust in the eyes of the New Atheism. God's eternal justice in the twin realities of the New Jerusalem and the Lake of Fire is no justice at all in the eyes of Rob Bell.

Research seems to verify this idea that we're not very good at sorting out what is just. Whatever a leftist Berkeley professor will make of that, his conclusions actually validate the Word of God, which reminds us that our hearts are "deceitfully wicked" and warns us away from the "way that seems right" to us.

I don't know what happened in Florida that night, and so I don't know how to feel about this verdict. Other than sad, that is. A young man is needlessly dead. The question of whether you regard him as victim or assailant is merely a question of who played the greatest part in bringing his needless death to pass.

Habakkuk came to God on a quest for justice. He heard. He feared. He came back with a humbler appraisal of his own knowledge of justice. He learned. My prayer tonight is not so much that God will give us justice as that He will teach us what it is. But even that is not the most important thing. My heart longs for justice to be clearer to me and easier to find, but God told Habakkuk how we can survive that feeling. We righteous ones do not live by the timely delivery of perfect justice. No, but rather, we live by faith. I'm not entirely clear in my own mind about WHAT justice is, but I know beyond all reasonable doubt WHOSE justice is. This thing—my faith in Jesus Christ—is the most important thing. It is our Polaris on stormy nights of uncertain justice. We wait for justice; we live by faith.

I hope that we'll all make that clear in our conversations about this case, both online and IRL. Justice is found in the Way of Christ, as is mercy. That's where the living is. Cases of elusive justice down here below only make me all the more certain of that.


Dwight McKissic said...


Insightful thinking. Biblically based. Thought provoking. Impartial and incisive.

Thanks. Your post represents the Kingdom and the SBC well.

Anonymous said...


Just to let you know, you messed up my Sunday evening service with this. I was prepared and sitting in my office about 30 minutes before the service when I read your article. I had been burdened by the arrogance exhibited by many of my church members, as well as other believers and was seeking a Biblical response.

Your words encouraged me as well as directed me to a passage of Scripture to present to our church. Thanks for your ministry. I continue to pray that God will convict myself - as well as my church - in our implicit and complicit degrading of individuals.

Bart Barber said...

Praisegod Barebones: Messing things up since 2006.